Digital Ghosts

Here’s a preview of my upcoming talk at the Turing Festival in Edinburgh.

Credit: Motion in Place Platform Project

3D imaging is prevalent in archaeology and cultural heritage. From the Roman forum to Cape Town harbour, from the crypts of Black Sea churches to the castles of Aberdeenshire, 3D computer graphic models of ancient buildings and ancient spaces can be explored, manipulated and flown-through from our desktops. At the same time however, it is a basic fact of archaeological practice that understanding human movement constitutes a fundamental part of the interpretive process, and of any interpretation of a site’s use in the past. Yet most of these digital reconstructions, and the ones we see in archaeological TV programmes, in museums, in cultural heritage sites and even in Hollywood movies, tend to focus on the architecture, the features, and the physical surroundings. It is almost paradoxical that the major thing missing from many of our attempts to reconstruct the human past digitally are humans. This can be traced to obvious factors of preservation and interpretation: buildings survive, people don’t. However, this has not stopped advances in 3D modelling, computer graphics and web services to support 3D images from drawing archaeologists and custodians of cultural heritage further and further into the 3D world, and reconstructing ancient 3D environments in greater and greater detail. But the people are still left behind. This talk will reflect on the Motion in Place Platform (MiPP) project, which seeks to use motion capture hardware and data to test human responses and actions within VR environments, and their real-world equivalents. Using as a case study domestic spaces – roundhouses of the Southern British Iron Age – it used motion capture to compare human reaction and perception in buildings reconstructed at 1:1 scale, with ‘virtual’ buildings projected on to screens. This talk will outline the experiment, what might be learned from it, and how populating our 3D views of the past with ‘digital ghosts’ can also inform them, and make them more useful for drawing inferences about the past.

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