MiPP: Forming questions

The question about our MiPP project which I’m most often asked is ‘why?’ In fact that this is the whole project’s fundamental research question. As motion capture technologies become cheaper, more widely available, less dependent on equipment in fixed locations such as studios, and less dependent on highly specialist technical expertise to set them up and use them, what benefits can these technologies bring outside their traditional application areas such as performance and medical practice? What new research can they support? In such a fundamentally interdisciplinary project, there are inevitably several ‘whys’, but as someone who is, or at least once was, an archaeologist, archaeology is the ‘why’ that I keep coming back to. Matters became a lot clearer, I think, in a meeting we had yesterday with some of the Silchester archaeological team.

As I noted in my TAG presentation before Christmas, archaeology is really all about the material record: tracing what has survived in the soil, and building theories top of that. Many of these theories concern what people did, and where and how they moved while they were doing them. During a capture session in Bedford last week (which alas I couldn’t attend), the team tried out various scenarios in the Animazoo mocap suits, using the 3D Silchester Round House created by Leon, Martin and others as a backdrop. They reconstructed in a practical way how certain every day tasks might have been accomplished by the Iron Age inhabitants. As Mike Fulford pointed out yesterday, such reconstructions – which are not reconstructions in the normally accepted sense in archaeology, where the focus is usually on the visual, architectural and formal remediation of buildings (as excellently done already by the Silchester project) – themselves can be powerful stimuli for archaeological research questions. He cited a scene in Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle, where soldiers are preparing for battle. This scene prompted the reflection that a Roman soldier would have found putting on his battle dress a time consuming and laborious process, a fact which could in turn be pivotal to the interpretation of events surrounding various aspects of Roman battles.

One aim of MiPP is to conceptualize theoretical scenarios such as this as visual data comprising digital motion traces. The e-research interest in this is that those traces cannot really be called ‘data’, and cannot be useful in the particular application area of reconstructive archaeology, if their provenance is not described, or if they are not tagged systematically and stored as retrievable information objects. What we are talking about, in other words, is the mark-up of motion traces in a way that makes them reusable. Our colleagues in the digital humanities have been marking up texts for decades. The TEI has spawned several subsets for specific areas, such as EpiDoc for marking up epigraphic data, and mark-up languages for 3D modelling (e.g. VRML) are well developed. Why then should there not be a similar schema for motion traces? Especially against the background of a field such as archaeology, where there are already highly developed information recording and presentation conventions, marking up quantitative representations of immaterial events should be easy. One example might be to assign levels of certainty to various activities, in much the same way that textual mark-up allows editors to grade the scribal or editorial certainty of sections of text. We could then say, for example, that ‘we have 100% certainty that there were activities to do with fire in this room because there is a hearth and charring, but only 50% certainty that the fire was used for ritual activity’. We could also develop a system for citing archaeological contexts in support of particular types of activity; in much the same way that the LEAP project cited Silchester’s data in support of a scholarly publication. It boils down to the fundamental principle of information science, that an information object can only be useful when its provenance is known and documented. How this can be approached for motion traces of what might have happened at Silchester in the first century AD promises to be a fascinating case study.

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