Academic Enhancement Program

Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities Project Presentation

June 14, 1996

The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is an internationally recognized leader in the field of humanities research computing, and in this field its focus on interdisciplinary research is unique. The Institute sponsors projects in archaeology; architecture, landscape architecture and architectural history; medieval, 18th- and 19th-century British literature; American history; classical history; music; religious studies; cultural studies; bibliography; anthropological linguistics; film; 19th-century American literature; renaissance Italian literature; tibetan literature; and classics. The Institute is one of the few humanities computing centers to develop and distribute software specifically designed for the purposes of humanities research and teaching, and it has secured publishing agreements with major commercial and academic publishers and major museums and libraries that constitute significant precedents for scholars everywhere. Institute faculty and staff provide government agencies, museums, non-profit organizations, and private foundations with consulting services in the area of electronic publishing. Institute personnel also participate in national and international humanities initiatives in the areas of software development, digital libraries, and networked scholarship and teaching.

The mission of the Institute with respect to emerging technologies is to take an assertive role in shaping how those technologies are adapted to and integrated with humanities teaching and research. Virtual reality and 3D modeling tools are already in use in the sciences, in medecine, and in industry. If research and teaching in the humanities are going to enjoy the benefit of these very promising new technologies, and indeed if humanists are to have a role in shaping those technologies, then someone needs to be working with them now, in their infancy: the Institute is one of very few organizations in the world with the mission, the expertise, and the interest in doing that work. Therefore, we are now asking the Board of Visitors, on behalf of the Academic Enhancement Program, to support the Institute's effort to lead the way in applying this technology to the purposes of the humanities.

The following Institute projects have already used virtual reality and 3D modeling to achieve some of their research goals:

  1. The Pompeii Forum Project. When the Pompeii site was first excavated, archaeologists unwittingly removed what might have been the physical evidence of roofing materials. An animation based on CAD models was created for John Dobbins' project to show a 3-D rendering of the walls as they exist today and to present two arguments: a nineteenth-century imaginary reconstruction of the site, and Dobbins' "roofed" reconstruction, based on the architectural similarities between the Pompeii buildings and other structures of the period.
  2. The Rossetti Project. The Web denies its users a sense of relative scale, which is an important frame of reference for studying artworks. For this reason, a 3D "walk-through" studio has been built for Jerome McGann's electronic archive of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, so that the user can see Rossetti's works at scale, in virtual space.

Other Institute projects do not currently use these technologies but have compelling reasons for doing so:

  1. The Blake Project. An exhibition of William Blake's work was held in 1809 at his brother's house, an exhibition which no one attended. Given Blake's considerable posthumous influence on the literary and graphic arts, this historical conjunction is now of keen interest, and a virtual reconstruction of the "lost" event has been envisioned as part of the complete electronic archive of Blake's work.
  2. "The Valley of the Shadow." The mimetic function of VR would also be a considerable enhancement to Ed Ayers' Civil War archive, for the reconstruction of battlefields, towns, and landscapes.
One of the Institute's primary interests in this area is to develop software for linking textual databases with three-dimensional models, so that a user could extract visual information on the basis of textual queries. For example, a student using Ed Ayers' Civil War archive who wanted to track the movements of a particular Confederate company would be able to generate 3D interactive models of a battlefield simply by defining the relevant variables (location, date, time of day). Another scholar could search Richard G. Wilson's electronic database of Jefferson's architectural drawings for a specific structural feature and then view the existing and historical examples three-dimensionally, in their environmental contexts. With these tools, a user would even be able to scroll through the evolution of an architectural site over time.

All the projects mentioned above demonstrate how traditional scholarly efforts can be transformed by a representational use of VR. However, the future of virtual reality is not entirely (or even mainly) restricted to the literal representation of the three-dimensional, material world. Virtual reality is also well suited to more abstract modeling of large data structures. As a spatial metaphor for interaction with data, VR has some clear advantages: our aesthetic sense can apprehend patterns in visual models much more quickly than we can extract those patterns from the same data expressed numerically or as text, and a three-dimensional user-interface would allow for more fluidity and require less foreknowledge than the text-based interfaces now available on the World-Wide Web. Human beings are adapted to receiving information three-dimensionally, and eventually, browsing an electronic database whose interface mimics physicality and tactility will be as common-place to the humanities as flipping through a book.

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