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Paradigms, Ownership and Reality in Immersive Technologies: An interview with Professor Sarah Kenderdine

Paradigms, Ownership and Reality in Immersive Technologies: An interview with Professor Sarah Kenderdine

The Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Western Australia recently hosted one of the world’s leading academics in interactive and immersive experiences. As the HASTAC Scholar I had the opportunity to interview Sarah and her research as well as my own. If you want to listen to the lecture she gave as part of her visit follow this link:

Professor Sarah Kenderdine is the Deputy Director of the National Institute for Experimental Arts (NIEA), Director of the iGLAM Lab (Laboratory for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) and Director of Research at the Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment (ALiVE) in Hong Kong. Sarah’s focus is on the amalgamation of cultural heritage and digital media, specifically augmented and virtual realities, embodied narrative and interactive cinema. One example of her work is Pure Land the exemplary immersive and interactive 3D digital experience of one the Dunhuang Caves in China, a world heritage site. The work earned Sarah the Australian CHASS Prize for distinctive work.

The opportunity to interview Sarah Kenderdine is a privilege and I did not want to spoil the chance to ask her some pertinent questions to both her area of study and my research. Perhaps my biggest interest was her advice to early career researchers on ways to give us the best head start in the world of immersive realities. However I also wanted to ask her about issues with ownership of digital heritage and the potential future uses for archaeologists and other heritage workers. Below are some questions and excerpts from the interview.


Paradigms and Technologies

Maddy: Time and time again, I find myself being asked about obsolete technologies and the rapidly advancing world we are in. Do you have any suggestions for how, as current researchers, we can prepare ourselves?

Sarah: I think I did say this in my lecture, and I could go on about it at some length. There is this idea that technology is changing so rapidly and everything is changing so rapidly. Certainly there are technologies that are changing rapidly but, the actual paradigm is not changing that fast. When it comes to Museum exhibitions and the outcomes of your work in a public domain you can be doing them in virtual reality but, you might be drawing on these long traditions of ways of seeing things. And, so this is not changing. Learning certain software[s] that are going to be superseded that is just part of the world that we live in. But that is not the obsolescence of you’re work and, the theorising of your work is, obviously, very important…If you build something great it’ll be around forever.

Much like that example that I use of Jeffrey Shaw’s work in the cave, that’s from 1995, when you show it to people they think that it’s current. The graphics are old, you know in the style but, the thing is that it is a very classic work.

I see this all the time, especially with the emergence of gimmicks of shows is that, number one, they are rendered really badly and, number two, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the technology is for. You see that a lot in augmented reality and failed augmented reality works and the fact that there is a very long history of doing it properly.

Maddy: and that works?

Sarah: …and that works. I certainly think having an understanding of the prehistory of your area in terms of media is really beneficial and, from a theoretical point of view, it is also really important.


Maddy: I was thinking that, given you started in the same area as me, working in a museum in Western Australia, and now heavily involved in overseas work. Did you learn another language, Mandarin for example?

Sarah: Oh no, I’m working in so many different countries. So the language thing for me, I’m never in any place long enough. Even when I was living in Hong Kong, they speak Cantonese there, which was completely useless for me in the rest of China. There are also a huge number of English speakers there as well. So the impetus to have to learn another language, and in what context and how long will you be there, adds to whether you’re going to learn these really complex languages. And I am working in maybe 10 countries, simultaneously, with completely different languages. So that never became something I grew into. All the time I still want to learn Arabic, or Russian, or something, but, I don’t have any time and that certainly has huge constraints at many levels.

I do a lot of work in India, where English is just everywhere and a lot of the good academic discourse about the places that I am dealing with is in English. It can be very, very fundamental, the relationship between your translator and yourself (especially onsite) It is absolutely critical to you having a bad outcome or a good outcome. So, if you don’t speak their language, its not just some person you might hire to do that job, that person will have a really fundamental role in how you negotiate and how its perceived.

Maddy: So have you been working with people long enough that you go back to the same interpreter?

Sarah: Sure, in China at the sites I’m on, I use one particular guy.

Maddy: I wouldn’t even think about that [having a ongoing relationship with one translator]

Sarah: Yeah, especially when you are going into negotiations…if there is any misunderstanding you can potentially loose access to the site. So it is really important.


Ownership in the digital world

Maddy: A lady asked you yesterday in your public lecture about if you can see original artefacts now potentially coming back to their original locations, because we have these digital copies. I guess the other aspect of that, is regardless of whether the originals stay or go, is who owns the digital copies? Maybe this isn’t so much a huge thing yet?

Sarah: Sure, It’s a huge thing, absolutely. Where it becomes particularly tricky is, I think, when you’re dealing with very high-resolution data sets. Somehow, a few snaps are one thing but an extremely, highly detailed 3D model is something else. And, even thought they are just digital the perception of them is different. Even though a photograph might be a very powerful tool, a fully rendered, totally articulated, ‘can’t tell the difference’, 3D model, somehow has more aura [sic]. The rights management and the data capture that I do (we run the scanning lab of course), all the rights belong to the owner of the object. So, it is about establishing the owner of the object from the beginning of a project.

Digital rights are quite well known in Museums and they understand and realise that if they put their stuff on the internet for free, that is ok too. But, I think, that things get more complicated, when they are very, very high fidelity data sets. So the issue for a long time with museums was ‘oh well, we’ll just put our small resolution pictures on the Internet’, now they have gotten over that and put big pictures on. But, I still think they feel that isn’t a challenge to the real object. Maybe it is something to do with ‘3D-ness’? It’s classic that Museums have been very, very slow to take-up and distribute 3D on the internet and there are really no good tools for that. Why is that? Its because somehow its not such an easy release. I guess that the general philosophy is that Museums are custodians and material this doesn’t belong to them it belongs to the world and, so long as its not sensitive material in a cultural sense. In general, it should be released or be available in some form or another.


Archaeology, Interpretation and Reality

Maddy: My next question is much more to do with archaeology and, I guess the theory behind it, I’m looking at what is the benefit of having high resolution and highly accurate models and reconstructions? And it is going back to, sort of, interpretation and primary interpretation of a site. If we have that ability to create such accurate models in the next few years, what is your opinion on a pseudo-primary interpretation? These models are available for the next ten years, that site is destroyed, damaged, changed or excavated. The next generation of archaeologists have the chance to look at a site with fresh eyes, not from plans or reports, and interpret it themselves. So, I understand that there’s a level of bias; whoever records, photographs or models it will have an influence on the data. But surely, it is better then reading site plans and reports?

Sarah: Absolutely. There is quite a lot of this theoretical framing debate in science illustration. The use of images in science because of that auto-suggest implication, what they really represent and what is that data that’s being used. How is it read? What colour is it? This is all very important. They have had huge debates in science about that sort of stuff. I think in the digital archaeology world its really how much extra documentation you put with your model that tells people what decisions you made, when you made it and what bits you left out because you couldn’t get to that part of the wreck. There are a million reasons why certain things happen in that model creation process. Plus documentation on the packages [software], which were used, and the rendering quality and where is the raw material.

So, if someone was to take your raw data and recreate the model that is the stuff that they would use. They won’t use the model that you created; they’ll use the raw material. So, how is that archived, and described and in what database is it, and to what standards does it adhere and how is the metadata constructed and all of those kind of things become very fundamental if you want to go back to those principles of recreating a wreck site in 10 years time from someone else’s data.

For that reason, computer vision type programs and graphics analysis will improve so that you can take the same raw data and spit out something that is better, potentially.

So the rules of the game, I guess, would be that.

Maddy: Thank you so much for you time, your advice and your insights into the world of immersive realities. That was great.

Sarah: It was a pleasure.


Thanks once again to Sarah Kenderdine for giving some time to me to sit down and have this chat. I hope you all find it as useful and enlightening as I have. If you have any questions I would love to hear them so please leave a comment!

Cheers, Maddy

Note: Top Image: Professor Sarah Kenderdine, Bottom Image: Example of 3D digital reconstruction mesh. All images provided by the Insitute of Advanced Studies.



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