Tim Wang and Ulrich Rauch: An Arts Metaverse: Reconstructing the Past (A Short Review)

1. INTRODUCTION

We come here with questions… not answers and we hope that attending and listening and engaging will help us to clarify some of our fuzzy thinking on the relevance and impact of 3D virtual environments on teaching and learning… no… more ambitiously… on the way we perceive, and actively construct the world around us. You can see: We take a fairly subjectivist stance. The power of immersive environments—whether these are provided by film or a virtual reality such as our modeled a First Nations Longhouse, a Greek temple, or virtually skiing down a powder-sugared slope—manifests itself in the crossing of “psychological thresholds” that encourage new perspectives, resulting in a “shift of consciousness” (Hovagimyan). Without becoming too poetic, 3D VL environments may well change teaching, learning, and scholarship. As such we engage in transformative, and if you want, subversive work.

2. WHAT IS IT?

The Ancient Spaces project draws on 3D gaming technologies, the skill of student modelers, and the expertise of faculty to bring Mediterranean (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome) and North American antiquity alive for teachers, learners and the public at large. Created by a collaborative effort between UBC students, faculty, and staff in 2003, Ancient Spaces is the precursor to an Arts Metaverse and is an attempt to recreate entire civilizations in virtual space through the collaboration of historians, archaeologists, architects and students.

The technology developed enables students to reconstruct the monuments of ancient civilizations in an interactive 3D simulation. Thus far, these reconstructions have included:

A Nisga’a Village (Nass Valley, BC)

Sections of Machu Picchu (Peru)

Hierakonpolis and Deir el-Medina (Egypt)

Acropolis and Agora (Athens)

Together, these reconstructions help to shed light on the core values of material culture in a wide range of global cultures, ranging from Europe to the Near East and the aboriginal civilizations of the Americas. All of these are slated to become complex digital worlds for virtual explorers.

One of the key goals of the project is to produce technology comparable in quality to that which goes into the creation of computer games, but (1) freely available in the public domain and “open-source”, so that any academic or member of the public can edit it, and (2) designed for fully educational use that allows students to control content creation.

3. HOW IT BEGAN

2003-2006 Proposals for Funding (note: the shift from “gaming” to self-defined, self-organized VLE)

AN ONLINE ENVIRONMENT FOR THE INTERACTIVE STUDY OF THE ANCIENT WORLD

We propose to enable the student to reconstruct and re-experience the material culture of ancient Greece, Rome and the Near East in a collaborative environment. This project aims to provide a supplementary infrastructure for several core curricula within the department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies by encouraging student participation and engagement with the ancient world through digital media. A modular approach will allow the foundational design to be re-used in future projects elsewhere in the Faculty.

Ancient Spaces has been student-driven from the beginning, and continually based on open-source software. The idea for a student-built, “massively multiplayer” world based on classical antiquity was put forward by Michael Griffin, then an undergraduate student in UBC’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies in January 2003, and an early version of the software was written in the open-source library CrystalSpace (focusing on the Palace of Minos at Knossos). In July 2003, a cross-disciplinary group of students drawn from Classics and Computer Science, all with ties to the Faculty of Arts’ Instructional Support and Information Technology (Arts ISIT) unit at the University of British Columbia initiated the project idea. The group consisted of three students: Michael Griffin, Dieter Buys, and Jo McFetridge, the co-founders of the project (http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca, see the team page).

Using a “mode” of a gaming platform called Unreal Tournament 2004 these students demonstrated that traditional gaming technology could be put to use to create a realistic and explorable 3D model of the ancient Athenian Acropolis.

Core Goals

1) To generate an infrastructure that enables non-expert users to model key aspects of the ancient world.

2) To educate faculty in the use of these learning objects for creating cinematic and interactive illustrations of key historical events in the western tradition.

3) To engage students in the active use of this technology to complement projects in those same curricula.

4) Using this infrastructure, to create simulations of the social and religious context of daily life in the major centres of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Some examples of the ancient Greek simulations created using the game engine:

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/1Propylaea.avi

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/2Propylaea.avi

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/3Acropolis.avi

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/4Acropolis.avi

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/5Acropolis.avi

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/6Acropolis.avi

http://ancient.arts.ubc.ca/images/movs/7Acropolis.avi

2004

Beginning from this proof of concept, Ancient Spaces, with support from UBC’s Teaching & Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF), piloted the project in a first year classical studies course, Classical Studies 100, at the University of British Columbia. A volunteer group of twenty classical studies students replaced their traditional essay with an immersive 3D reconstruction of the ancient Athenian Agora, including major structures such as the fifth-century Temple of Hephaestus and the Tholos or Council-House, where many crucial decisions of the prototypical democracy were made. The technical elements of the project were simple and “backgrounded” so that the students required little technical expertise. Feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive.

2005

With the support of a larger TLEF of $80,000, Ancient Spaces set out to develop their our own unique and open source technology to allow any university to contribute content, and to “background” the need for technical expertise still further. Ancient Spaces, also, began to considerably expand the range of areas to be modeled from Ancient Athens to Ancient Egypt, British Columbia, and Machu Picchu in Peru.

New technology makes possible the rendering of these famous ancient places into a 3D format with the ability to engage in a virtual tour of them. Moreover, students will eventually be able to interact with these sites by taking an active role in building the Parthenon, or reconstructing the Agora, the pyramids of Egypt, along with virtually experiencing digs at the Lunt (Britain), Stymphalos (Greece), Monte Polizzo (Sicily), the royal tombs at Abydos (Egypt), Hierakonpolis (Egypt), and Tell Acharneh (Syria). Acquiring direct, hands-on knowledge via the virtual world along with a rich visual experience would be of benefit to every student in the department and, once fully developed, of benefit to the community at large. These virtual classrooms would be models of learning, retention and, through virtual visits to these ancient sites, internationalization. In this regard, Ancient Spaces would enable students to reconstruct and re-experience the material cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world in a collaborative environment.

2006

Ancient Spaces: student–driven reconstructions of ancient civilizations

Ancient Spaces enables the undergraduate archaeologist to rebuild the monuments of ancient civilizations in an interactive 3D simulation. This new approach to “post-constructive learning” in archaeology uses the creation of immersive computer simulations which draw upon e.g. archaeological excavations led by UBC instructors or existing records of excavations, to create an immersive process that allows students to engage with the recreation of physical artifacts, but also the recreation and understanding of the social and cultural environments in which artifacts became formed. The simulations are then reviewed in the academic community, and subsequently showcased and shared (via the Internet) as original undergraduate research. The project was initially conceived and led by students, with students leading the development of the interactive 3-D simulations. Academic support for the project came originally from the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious studies, but has widened to include the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory. Each class complemented by Ancient Spaces also produces a learning environment for the next cohort of students, affording undergraduates a leading role in experiencing new postconstructivist pedagogical approaches by interacting equally with subject matter, with peers and with supervisors.

4. WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?

The project was designed initially as an aid for teaching and learning in departmental curricula by presenting students with an alternative way of experiencing the ancient world, and allowing them to participate actively in its reconstruction. Ancient Spaces provides students with the opportunity to engage in experiential learning. The project also aids greatly in the acquisition of Information Technology literacy among Arts students. The project also seeks to provide digital forums for peer-to-peer and teacher-to-student academic discourse, and to promote the development of multiple learning channels for Humanities students. In this spirit, Ancient Spaces aims to enable students and non-academics to jointly become researchers in creating and sharing knowledge beyond the walls of the university. We hope to create a simple interface and technology for sharing, qualifying, and evaluating interactive three-dimensional content.

How?

Students would build this interactive world themselves, element by element, individually or in teams, by conducting academic research into the form and function of an individual ancient building, event, artifact or ritual, and using pre-made 3D objects to reconstruct the ancient element in 3D. The result is a modular, digital world that can be used and reused to complement and enhance existing course curricula and as a digital forum (through a wiki) for students to debate particular archaeological, religious, or historical reconstructions.

5. SOME OUTCOMES

Together, these reconstructions help to shed light on the core values of material culture in a wide range of global cultures, ranging from Europe to the Near East and the aboriginal civilizations of the Americas.

In practice, each student focuses on the creative process of gathering research to generate an accurate photo-realistic three-dimensional image from a twodimensional site plan or written report. The environment created, accompanied by an oral or written report on the decisions made in converting descriptive data to a fully explorable space, serves as a term project. Combining projects, each cohort of students generates a large and compelling, but static environment. Using the Ancient Spaces Editor, the same environment can be transformed and different theories of reconstruction explored, demonstrating the dynamic nature of archaeological knowledge. In application in First Nations Studies (INDS 530B), this approach also allows student creations to be shared with Elders and knowledge-holders. Elders from the Nass Valley did evaluate at the end of the semester further develop student work.

“The potential of the course was just phenomenal,” said Nyce {a student}, who is also the president of the Nisga’a House of Wisdom, a non-profit university college in the village of New Aiyansh, BC, “aboriginal thought is not common to everybody’s common knowledge, and contextualized aboriginal thought is even more remote, unless you spend time in the community.”

As well as its direct application in these courses, the Ancient Spaces technology is being used in research applications within the Faculty of Arts. For example, a novel archaeological site in Egypt, currently in the process of excavation, is being directly recorded in the high-resolution 3D environment of Ancient Spaces. A Canada Research Chair-funded project in the Department of Psychology is making use of the same 3D approach to create content for a research study in the human perception of dimensionality.

Benefits student-centred active learning: In place of the in-class, slide-show approach to the study of antiquity, art history, and archaeology, the Ancient Spaces 3D modelling program asks students to engage in investigative practises, work with field data, interpret forensic evidence, and weigh competing theories.

Students gain a better understanding of the ways in which a lost culture’s architectural choices can shed light on its social dynamics and core values.

Teaching the conflicts: While there will always be a need in archaeology for museum-quality site reconstructions produced with the help of expensive scanners, the Ancient Spaces approach to the production of good quality models makes it easy for students to demonstrate their knowledge of varying theories by producing different replicas of the same site reflecting interpretive conflicts in the field.

Student engagement: Change the nature of the study of society and culture in the Humanities by putting students inside their subjects and giving them the freedom to make their own discoveries based on an interactive model.

Perspective taking: With the “inexplicable interaction” between mind and matter manifest in the interaction between self inside and outside a 3D VR environment the potential to challenge social and cultural explanatory models that are based on classical subject-object distinctions… is gratifying. The adoption of digital technology in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences encourages interactive participation in immersive experiences and thereby enables questions of representation, perception, and cognition in relation to the production of meaning.

A VR simulation in this context might offer profound insights into “how the world is… conceptually organized and integrated” for indigenous cultures in that by encouraging an immersive experience it might obviate what McPherson and Rabb refer to (“Indigeneity”) as the “outside-view predicate.”

4. QUESTIONS

We ask: will a Metaverse, and our experience of living in two worlds help us to improve our own understanding on how “particular institutions, media, texts, discourses and disciplines are inhabited, haunted, even constituted by what they cannot tolerate, by what they cannot acknowledge, by what is alien, external, contaminatory” (Nicolas Royle, After Derrida).

And are we passing a new threshold of consciousness by expanding our way of thinking and by accepting of being in two (multiple) worlds, or are we falling back in yet another dialectic of enlightenment because we fail to acknowledge how virtual world and live-world are but one?

5. A FINAL SHOWCASE OF THE ARTS METAVERSE

http://artsmetaverse.arts.ubc.ca/media/artsmetaverse.avi

Acknowledgments

We want to acknowledge the contributors of a variety of sources to this synopsis:

Michael Griffin, Ph.D student, Classics, Oxford University

Jodey Castricano, Associate Professor Critical Studies, University of British

Columbia Okanagan

Marilyn M. Lombardi, Director, Senior IT Strategist & ISIS Senior Research

Scholar, Duke University

Liang Shao, Graphic Designer, University of British Columbia

Bryan Zandberg , Writer for UBC’s artsBeat