Virtual Humanities: Immersive Environments and 3D Simulation

Immersive environments are one of the newest areas of DH experimentation. 3D simulation, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality were until recently only accessible with high end hardware and produced end products that were so large they were hard to deliver over the internet. As the technology improves and internet bandwidth grows, these projects are now coming into their own. Today we will first explore some of the newer ways to generate 3D content, explore some projects that show the possibilities of these developments, and finally try our hand at making simple interactive 3D experiences.

Beyond GIS

David Bodenhamer suggests that 3D technologies can move us beyond GIS as a representation of space to a deeper understanding of place. He writes

For humanists, the goal is not proof but meaning.   The challenge, then, is to use geospatial technologies to probe, explore, challenge, and complicate—in sum, to allow us to see, experience, and understand human behavior in all its complexity and to view its deep contingency.  As in traditional humanities scholarship, the aim is less to produce an authoritative or ultimate answer than to prompt new questions, develop new perspectives, and advance new arguments or interpretations.

David Bodenhamer, “Beyond GIS: Geospatial Technologies and the Future of History,” 2013

In groups: explore one of the following immersive 3D projects:

Designate a reporter and be prepared to share the project and briefly answer all three questions. Reference the readings as you discuss.

  • What new questions does it prompt?
  • What new perspectives does it develop?
  • What new arguments or interpretations does it advance?

Example: 3D Presentation in StoryMaps

The ArcGIS online mapping software we used last time can also be used in a 3D Scene mode that lets you extrude 2D shapes into 3D space and change perspective by flying around your map. You can get to know this tool with this interactive tutorial.

Once you’ve created 3D scenes, you can present them with explanatory text in a scrolling one-page presentation using the powerful StoryMaps tool. Check out the example below that takes our Squirrel census data and combines it with aerial and ground level views of NYC buildings and historic maps.

How to Make a Model

Manual 3D modeling techniques like those we’ve attempted in SketchUp are very effective and have had a long history of producing impressive digital humanities projects.  Lisa Snyder’s long-running project to recreate the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1863 in Chicago is a prime example of what these techniques can accomplish in skilled hands.

1863 World's Columbian Exposition

Increasingly, however, computers are doing more of the heavy lifting. There are several methods of generating 3D models that rely on algorithms to create geometric meshes that are being adopted for DH projects along with techniques borrowed from the film and video game industries like motion capture. The award winning Virtual Angkor being a prime example of the leading edge of these techniques.

Two major current methods for generating 3D content are procedural modeling and photogrammetry, which we’ll discuss today.

Procedural Modeling

This term refers to the generation of complex geometry from basic shapes through the application of code-based rules.  The leading platform for this type of work in DH is CityEngine, owned by ESRI, the makers of ArcGIS.  This technique allows a user to produce, modify and update large, textured models of entire cities quickly and iteratively.  The output can be explored online or integrated with gaming software or 3D animation packages to produce video games, simulations and movies.

This software was developed for modern city planners and urban architects, but has increasingly been put to use on historic landscapes and built environments, as in the impressive work of Marie Saldaña who developed a Roman temple rule set.

CE workflow, Marie Saldana

For the past several years, a project here at Carleton led by Serena Zabin and Austin Mason has been using procedural modeling to recreate colonial Boston circa 1770 as part of a video game centered on the Boston Massacre called Witness to the Revolution. You can see a flyover of part of the reconstruction in the video below, get an overview of the current state of the game on the project website, and read more about the origins and process from Carleton students’ posts on the development blog.

Boston central wharf area reconstructed with procedural modeling


Photogrammetry is another algorithmic modeling technique that consists of taking multiple overlapping photographs and deriving measurements from them to create 3D models of objects or scenes.  The basic principle is quite similar to the way many cameras these days allow you to create a panorama by stitching together overlapping photographs into a 2D mosaic.  Photogrammetry takes the concept one step further by using the position of the camera as it moves through 3D space to estimate X, Y and Z coordinates for each pixel of the original image; for that it is also known as structure from motion or SfM.

Photogrammetry can be used to make highly accurate and realistically photo textured models of buildings, archaeological sites, landscapes (if the images are taken from the air) and objects.  Close range photogrammetry of historical objects offers the possibility of both digitally preserving artifacts before they may be lost or damaged, and of allowing a whole suite of digital measurements, manipulations and other analyses to be performed that allow insights into the material that might not be visible to the naked eye.  The technique is gaining in popularity and usage, since it produces very impressive results comparable to high end laser scanning technologies for a mere fraction of the cost.

Modeling the Northfield Depot

Our test subject will be the historic Northfield Depot, a train station built in 1888 (slightly after our target date) and currently undergoing restoration through the efforts of the local Save the Northfield Depot campaign.

Northfield depot in 1896
A photo of the 1888 Northfield depot taken in 1896, courtesy of the Carleton College Archives.

We will learn photogrammetry using MetaShape (formerly PhotoScan), the leading photogrammetry software. A demo mode is available for free that will let you try everything except exporting and saving your model. If you want to explore more, they offer a 30-day free trial of the full Standard or full Professional editions.

Northfield Depot by meDHieval on Sketchfab

To make a model like the one embedded above:

Assignment: Final Project Brainstorming

FIRST: Please fill out the Midterm Reflection Evaluation

THEN: Brainstorm your final project ideas and groups by talking with your neighbors/friends in the class, and beginning to fill out this Google Sheet with ideas.

Final Group Project Brainstorming

On Thursday, we will talk through the options, form groups of 4-6, and begin drafting the Final Project Pitch document

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