Digital Landscapes

2014-16: Minding the Gap: Advanced Challenges in Theory and Practice in 3D Modeling of Cultural Heritage Sites

Fresco from Room 15, showing virtual restoration by Martin Blazeby. © King’s College London, 2011

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The “Minding the Gap” proposal was submitted to the NEH for funding as an Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute for 2015. On July 21, 2014 we were notified that the NEH will be funding this institute, which will be a collaboration with UCLA.

Summary: The past thirty years have seen a tremendous upsurge in the use of digital modeling in archaeology, art history, and other disciplines in the humanities. Through their interactive and immersive qualities, 3D digital representations can create new forms of visual knowledge, which in turn can lead to new research avenues. As such, the contributions of 3D models to teaching and research have become increasingly significant, through virtual collaborative environments, online pedagogical applications, reconstructions of large-scale spaces, as well as the digital preservation of cultural heritage sites. In 2013 Arkansas State University’s Center for Digital Initiatives (CDI) and the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville’s Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) offered a very successful three-week Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization: Theory and Practice, that provided seventeen scholars with a conceptual roadmap to the difficult but intellectually productive issues that surround the academic use of game engines, using an expanded suite of technologies.

This joint proposal by Arkansas State University (ASU) and the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA) builds on issues raised in the 2013 Institute, considering advanced problems and issues facing content creators and end users, and attempting to bridge that gap. This ten-day institute will take place over two consecutive summers: at ASU in 2015 and UCLA in 2016, bringing together twenty scholars working in the humanities who have research or teaching projects that would benefit from advanced discussion of theoretical issues with an impressive group of content creators working from different perspectives. In the one-week institute at ASU, participants will spend each morning in an advanced discussion group with a lecturer who will propose a specific theoretical problem that they faced in content creation. In the afternoon, scholars will move into the lab and, in a hands-on session, will be asked to consider the issues discussed in the morning session by working through case studies that reflect alternative solutions to the theoretical problems raised by the speakers. There will be five lecturers and five case studies—one per day. The goal for this first week is to position the scholars toward key issues or problems identified by Institute speakers, and to come to terms with how to address the problems in their own research.

After the first week, scholars will return to their home institutions, and will be given access to continuing and structured support. Scholars will collaborate and continue their discussion on a blog moderated by Institute PIs. Institute lecturers will also weigh in periodically in response to questions and conversation threads. Over the year, scholars will continue to work through problems introduced in the first institute—either by writing a paper or creating their own model or prototype to address this issue. Each Institute scholar will also be given access to up to forty hours of programming support time to be used for project or prototype development. Scholars will reconvene at UCLA in 2016 for a three-day symposium, meeting again with lecturers from the first session and presenting their work. Papers from this symposium will then be submitted for consideration to either Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (DAACH), of which Gill is Associate Editor, or Digital Studies / Le champ numérique, of which Snyder is Associate Editor, based on the scholar’s preference. All symposium papers will also be posted on the Institute website.

In recognition of their potential to transform teaching and research in the humanities, 3D virtual representations have become a focus of interdisciplinary programs and directives at many universities, including the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA) at Ball State University, the Experiential Technologies Center (ETC) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (UAF), the Center for Digital Initiatives (CDI) at ASU, the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory at the University of Virginia, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities (formed in 2008).

Despite their increasing use, the transformative promise of 3D models and virtual environments has not been realized in mainstream undergraduate or graduate curricula, in archaeology, art history, classics, or history. Maurizio Forte has called attention to this disparity, noting, ″…the use of 3D representations has been completely random and thus has not had a great impact on the development of research methodologies and protocols. Only rarely is adequate time and attention paid to them in university courses and programs of study. There are, of course, a few courageous exceptions, but to the extent that 3D has made it into the curriculum, it has been at the level of short, postgraduate training courses.″ (Beyond Illustration, 2008, 23) While Forte made this observation in 2008, university courses using 3D representations to address interpretive questions in the humanities remain rare at the undergraduate level or graduate level. Arguably, this is because the end products, until recently, could not be shared or experienced in real-time, did not provide either significant narrative depth or complex interactivity, or perhaps also because the tools often used to create the content (such as Unity, Maya, or Studio Max) were not accessible to those without a programming background.

The 2013 NEH Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization: Theory and Practice (http://humanitiesheritage.com), co-hosted by Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas—Fayetteville, sought to engage this issue head-on by making an expanded suite of technologies, including Unity, Cinema, 3D Studio Max, 123D Catch, Second Life, and VSim, accessible to scholars through a series of tutorials and workshops. Throughout the 2013 Institute, it became increasingly apparent based on comments from the scholars that it is equally critical to consider issues of reception when creating the model, and that often there is a distance between content creator and end-user—with an acknowledgement that there are also a broad range of end-users.

Several recent 3D projects, including all of those presented by lecturers/content creators in this institute, seem to engage directly Gillings’ call for ″dynamic interactive visualization.″ However, the use of a 3D model also makes explicit the tension between the competing goals of accuracy and immersion. The discussion of technical standards issued by the European Network of Excellence in Open Cultural Heritage (EPOCH) phrases the question directly: ″Can people rely on what is shown by visual explanations of heritage? How can they distinguish between scientifically valid communication and fantastic, video-game display? ″ While these issues were addressed to some extent in the 2013 institute, the importance of the end user experience, who might not always share the same aims as the content creator, was brought up again and again. How can scholars who use these models for a variety of purposes address these problems in their own research? How can we bridge what is often a chasm between those who create the content and those who use it?

The following scholars have committed to participating in the Institute as lecturers:
Maurizio Forte (Ph.D. Università degli Studi di Roma ‘La Sapienza’) is William and Sue Gross Professor of Classical Studies Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. He is also the founder of the DIG@Lab (for a digital knowledge of the past) at Duke.
Chris Johanson (Ph.D. UCLA) is assistant professor of Classics and Digital Humanities at University of California, Los Angeles. He is the Associate Director of the UCLA Experiential Technologies Center, and has collaborated on many international mapping and visualization projects.
Bernard Frischer (Ph.D. Heidelberg) is a professor of Informatics in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, where he also directs The Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.
Diane Favro (Ph.D. UC Berkeley) is a professor of architecture and the director of the Experiential Technologies Center (ETC) in the Department of Architecture and Urban Design at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Erik Champion (Ph.D. University of Melbourne) is a Professor of Cultural Visualization at Media Culture and Creative Arts at Curtin University, Australia.
John Clarke (Ph.D. Yale University) is a professor of art history at the University of Texas, Austin. Clarke is co-director of the Oplontis Project, a collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii and the King’s Visualisation Lab, King’s College, London.
Ruth Hawkins (Ph.D. University of Mississippi) received an NEH “We the People” Challenge Grant in 2005 titled “Working the Land: From Slavery to Sharecropping and Beyond in the Arkansas Delta,” to assist in the research, restoration, and interpretation of key agricultural heritage sites throughout the Delta region.

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