Mellon Foundation Humanities Virtual World Consortium

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 4.22.14 PMBSU’s IDIA Lab was contracted by the Mellon Foundation Humanities Virtual World Consortium to design and develop a major open source virtual world initiative for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage projects. The consortium – comprised of Kings College, London; UCLA; the University of Virginia and Trinity College, Dublin – turned to the expertise of BSU’s IDIA Lab to create this two-year innovative hybrid simulation platform that leverages new modes of teaching and learning in immersive environments.

Concurrent with the development of the prototype infrastructure, members of the Consortium developed working relationships with Ball State University’s IDIA Lab, an internationally recognized academic leader in in the development of virtual worlds, human compter interaction, visualization and 3D simulation. Most important for the Consortium, the IDIA Lab is engaged in the development of scholarly, creative and pedagogical projects that explore the intersection between the arts, science and technology. The IDIA Lab is not merely a technical development team, but is also a interdisciplinary design studio that integrates art and emergent technologies into every phase of development. After inviting John Fillwalk, the lab’s director, to attend a series of conference calls with the consortium, a proposal for interface and in world design was solicited. John Fillwalk is an internationally recognized artist and developer of virtual and hybrid environments. He serves as the senior director of the Hybrid Design Technologies initiative [HDT], professor of Art and as the director of the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts [IDIA Lab} at Ball State University. Over the past 25 years, his interactive and virtual artworks have been exhibited internationally in numerous festivals, galleries and museums including SIGGRAPH, CYNETart, Synthése, 404 Festival, Dutch Design Week, Boston Cyberarts, Virtual Broad Art Museum, ISEA, ASCI, VIdéoformes, Indian Institute of Technology and the Beijing Science and Technology Museum.

The Consortium elected to partner with the IDIA Lab, since it offers design as well as technological expertise and a common interest in the theoretical implications of Virtual World technologies on research and pedagogy.

Development will be split between the two independent teams, with the IDIA Lab, in general, centering its work on the development of the Unity based platform including avatar selection, navigation, network controller, user interface system, and back end network hosting, while Tipodean develops the HTML and KML system and works with members of the Consortium to integrate the four individual projects into the shared platform. The development will not occur in isolation from the rest of the Consortium.  The external development teams will offer scheduled monthly training sessions to the internal technical teams of the Consortium. We are employing a similar development model to that successfully used during the Planning Phase of the HVWC in which, through a collaborative effort of local staff and third-party developers, we implemented a prototype template and virtual world environment with a subset of features below enabled.  In addition, we plan to hire a graphic design independent contractor and a game design independent contractor to work with the PIs and our development teams on the look and feel of the Consortium’s web presence as well as the conceptualization of the interface design.

Our Mission

I. Project Summary

The 1990s saw the development of digital technologies supporting the 3D (three dimensional) modeling of cultural heritage objects and environments. For the first time, humanists could digitally model and reconstruct the damaged or vanished monuments of the past. The results were typically 2D renderings or videos (“animations”). The decade of the 2000s saw the enhancement of 3D environments with avatars making it possible for scholars to enter into the 3D world and to use the Internet to interact with the simulated environment while communicating with fellow humanists located anywhere on the planet. Such software platforms are called networked virtual worlds (NVWs). The Humanities Virtual World Consortium (HVWC) will explore how the unique characteristics of  networked virtual worlds can enable and advance humanistic research while working towards creating a sustainable base for mainstreaming the technology in humanities scholarship. Our initial work is based upon a series of related scholarly initiatives that draw upon virtual world technology and which are meant to: a) advance the current state of research on the phenomenology of space and place, b) design visual and aural conventions to evoke the sensorial experience lost to us due to technological and evidentiary constraints, c) test the current capabilities of virtual worlds to explore chronotopic problems, previously inaccessible due to the limitations of prior technology, d) guide future development of humanities-driven virtual worlds, and e) produce works of exemplary digital scholarship, disseminated in formal, peer-reviewed publications, that solve specific research problems in particular disciplines and area studies. Our overall intent is to demonstrate how networked virtual worlds can uniquely enable important kinds of research inquiry, and thus contribute to the transformation of scholarly communication in the relevant subject fields and to the field of digital humanities. With this in mind, our projects have been chosen so that they span multiple disciplines— including Archaeology, Art History, Architectural History, Buddhist Studies, Classics, History, Irish Studies, Literary Studies, Tibetan Studies—and periods from the ancient past to contemporary times. While the projects explore discipline-specific research questions, they share common goals concerning humanities research and scholarly communication in a networked virtual world environment.

II. Expected Outcomes and Benefits of the Project

Project Deliverables: At the conclusion of the project we will release a networked virtual world platform template to be used in the Unity game development engine, the Consortium web site with documentation, four virtual world projects released as Unity3D builds, four draft in-world “articles” embedded within the virtual world project, and four articles submitted for peer review in journals devoted to specific scholarly domains.

The main outcomes of the proposed project will be (i) the consolidation of the Humanities Virtual World Consortium as a robust, fully functional academic organization that can persist and expand in the future; (ii) the development of a shared virtual world platform that is adapted for maximum utility for scholarly projects; (iii) the publication of four significant scholarly projects in that platform that exemplify the way in which virtual worlds offer unique affordances for scholarly research inquiries; (iv) individual articles based on the virtual world content submitted journals in our traditionally-defined, domain-specific fields. At the conclusion of the grant, a) the organization will be published on the web with bylaws and an means for others to join,  b) the new collaboratively maintained virtual world research and publication environment will host four scholarly publications products, and c) the shared development template and accompanying documentation will be made available online to aid others in the development of Virtual World content. The primary benefit of this project is that it constitutes a valuable and necessary step towards establishing the organizational and technical basis for a sustainable scholarly exploration of the unique ways in which networked virtual worlds can enable and advance humanistic research. While valuable and compelling individual projects have emerged over the past years, interoperability between them has not been supported. The barriers remain extremely high for individual scholars who wish to use this medium for their own research without major funding. For these reasons, to date these projects have failed to attain a wide scholarly audience. We propose to establish an organization, technology, and specific scholarly publication apparatus that would address these deficiencies in the subsequent years and beyond.

The broader, long-term, and more far-reaching benefits are that the initiative will establish a basis for the scholarly community to engage in a serious attempt at creating a sustainable, shared environment for scholarly research and communication to be done in a networked virtual world environment. These publications will show the viability and importance of such research, raise its profile in the scholarly community, and demonstrate in a compelling, virtually tangible, and accessible way the benefits of using a shared platform. Such publications will, it is envisioned, lead to an expansion of the Consortium and finally the development of a robust platform in which scholars can easily participate without the need for major grants to support further development of one-off technologies. Scholarly projects from disparate disciplines and geographical regions would be interoperable, and scholarly use would be widespread due to the consistency of interface and technology.