Virtual Reality and Historical Practice
A brief survey of recent A.H.A. Annual Meeting programs provides ample evidence of the “digital turn” in American historical scholarship. Sessions on a variety of digital platforms and technologies abound, yet recent developments in the use of virtual reality appear largely absent. Only one paper in the past three years focused on the uses of virtual, three-dimensional environments for historical pedagogy and none of the sessions listed in the programs for these meetings appear to consider how these tools can be employed for historical research and for the presentation of historical interpretations to students and public audiences. While archeologists and art historians have made extensive use of these simulations, conventional historians have been slower to use them.
The session we propose brings together an archeologist, historians, and a designer to discuss challenges and opportunities involved in the construction and use of 3D virtual environments for historical study. Given the unique character of these resources, we would like to adopt an experimental format instead of the customary papers-and-comment arrangement. Our session will include two 25-30-minute joint demonstrations of ongoing historical simulation projects, each featuring a scholar and the designer. These time slots will permit sufficient discussion of relevant technical and interpretive issues. They will be followed by a very short comment designed to facilitate extensive interaction between audience and panelists. (This format requires no additional costs except lcd projector, unless internet access is possible and carries a charge.) The first project is a three-dimensional reconstruction of Hadrian's Villa, the best known and best preserved of the imperial villas built during the first and second centuries CE. The second is a virtual recreation of the Ball Brothers Glass Company factory in Muncie, Indiana during the early twentieth century (Muncie is best known as "Middletown," the subject of Robert and Helen Lynd's book by that name, and Middletown research provides the source base for the project).
The panelists are Bernard Frischer, University of Virginia; James Connolly, Ball State University; and John Fillwalk, Ball State University. Frischer conceived the Hadrian’s Villa project and Connolly is principal historian for the Virtual Middletown. Fillwalk is the lead designer/developer for both projects and he will participate in both presentations. The Chair and commenter is Sheila Brennan, of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
Each session participant will address particular concerns. Frischer will concentrate on the ways in which the digital Hadrian’s Villa can be used as a research tool, in this case to investigate the cultural significance of the relationship between the built environment and celestial patterns. Connolly will argue that by integrating virtual environments with the digitized source material upon which they are based we can demonstrate the interpretive character of even the most precise and “realistic” historical reconstructions. Fillwalk, who will contribute to the presentation of both projects, will focus on technical matters related to the design and execution of 3-D environments. Brennan will close with brief critical comments (she will have viewed both virtual worlds in advance).