This is part 3 of a 5-part series on virtual reality in humanities. This article series explores the trends and use cases of how universities are utilizing VR and visualization to further explore research and public engagement opportunities in the humanities.

Museums traditionally track which exhibits perform the best through visitor interviews, questionnaires, or simple observation. By curating the most engaging content, museums encourage visitors to return again and again. However, the traditional methods tend to attract only extreme responses, and observations “pollute” the natural museum experience.

Five years ago, the University of Birmingham imagined a way to change that in the Digital Humanities Hub with interactive technology. Although the research has evolved since then, the Hub’s primary goal continues to be the same: bringing people together to encourage interaction and conversation about history.

Shifting Research Goals at the Digital Humanities Hub

In 2013, the university decided to reinvent the museum experience, both for the public and for curators. Researchers and local cultural organizations wanted to organize content based on what the public wanted to see instead of what leadership thought the public wanted to see.

“If you create an exhibition or cultural content, it’s hard to measure whether it’s successful or not,” says the current co-director of the university’s Digital Humanities Hub, Dr. Henry Chapman.

The university created the Digital Humanities Hub to fuse research and exhibition space. Instead of consistently having to refresh their content, the museum provided access to all materials and archives that were scanned and cataloged in 2D and 3D formats. In the exhibition space, visitors virtually interacted with history on touchscreen tables, wall displays, and tablets. With the tap of a finger, a person would access all kinds of artifacts. Through gestures, he or she could rotate, manipulate, and zoom in and out on each artifact.

Bringing in the research aspect, the Hub invited visitors to wear motion tracking headwear and glasses. As each person interacted with artifacts, a researcher collected statistics on which exhibits garnered the most interest. Their hope was to take these insights and begin curating more successful museum exhibits. Yet despite the success of the Hub as a museum, the Hub’s leadership struggled to understand their research results.

“Nobody had ever done anything like that before at the time, so it was experimental as a method and in quantifying the results,” explains Dr. Chapman. “But there was a difference between what the researchers wanted to achieve and the needs of the cultural organization.” 

The Hub slowly lost interest in testing content and optimizing exhibitions in a new way. Instead, the teams split the Hub’s technologies. Researchers took the tracking equipment to utilize in fields such as physics. However, the Hub’s leadership team found that engaging audiences with the touch technology and providing access to all their content continued to be a point of interest. Instead of being thought of as a scientific space, the Hub found its stride working with cultural partners and uncovering innovative ways to engage the public.

Using VR to Create Conversations and Share Cultural Stories

All across the United Kingdom, citizens take a day to celebrate Shakespeare on the anniversary of his death. Specially made films broadcast along the banks of the Thames, key performances showcase throughout London, the London Symphony Orchestra performs, and experimental art covers the landscape. Dr. Chapman’s team at the Digital Humanities Hub partnered with the BBC to participate in this annual celebration.

“We were working on a project of creating a regional map of the West Midlands and highlighting news stories against a number of different themes,” says Dr. Chapman. “We brought together a broad range of content to identify unexpected stories relating to Shakespeare with the 3D interface and touch screens.”

Tucked away in the BBC public offices this year sat the Hub’s interactive touchscreen technology. Instead of experiencing a traditional history of Shakespeare’s life, visitors saw maps of Europe and North Africa on the touch tables and screens. Indicators for interaction dotted the maps. As each person touches a location, a window pops up with different themes about Shakespeare’s life.

“It wasn’t linear,” says Dr. Chapman. “You started with the map and leaves the audience thinking, ‘What does Tunisia have to do with Shakespeare?’ They have to explore to find out.”

Visitors explored a city’s stages, actors’ birthplaces, the Elizabethan world, and key events from Shakespeare’s life. The content ranged from films and performances to still images. The sound created a unique challenge for Dr. Chapman’s team. With multiple people accessing multiple resources simultaneously, the team built a way to only funnel one sound source at a time.

“It was actually inspired by Lord of the Flies,” laughs Dr. Chapman. “We had an icon on the screen that looked like a microphone. When you drag the microphone near the video you want to play sound from, it would play. We had a stream of notes as graphic streaming from whatever video it was coming from.”

“We could have streamed sound to the phones,” continues Dr. Chapman, “but we didn’t want to destroy the idea of a group experience. We wanted everyone to talk about what was going on.”

Regardless of how technology is used, the primary purpose of a museum curator is to inspire curiosity and enable learning. Many organizations and universities can stall out on their virtual reality or visualization technology when their original research questions are answered or leadership changes. Despite how the Hub changed their research approach, their original goal continues to be the same.

“You can do so much on your own online,” says Dr. Chapman. “But in public, you want to create conversations, cross generations between strangers. We want to create an environment for people to interact with each other. That’s the whole point.” 

Virtual Reality Growing in the Humanities

Despite the rise of VR and visualization, advanced technology spaces continue to be a niche environment in the humanities. However, the Hub is turning into a forum for like-minded researchers.

“Although this was originally thought of as a scientific space, it’s become almost a catalyst for discussion, learning ideas, relationships between academics, and becoming a facility for cultural organizations and businesses,” says Dr. Chapman. “It’s a starting point of conversation.”

As the Hub adapts and changes, it will continue to draw people together and enable new conversations. Even as some of the original technology is now being used to write code, test engineering feats, and other scientific use cases, the Hub will always have a home for humanities academics.

“We each learn our own lessons and share them,” concludes Dr. Chapman. “We’re always going up. Together, we’re stronger.”

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