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Sanders gives insight to Virtual Heritage Industry
Learning Sites is one of the few 'hybrid' technology / archaeology / publishing companies pushing the envelope on research, development and commercial publishing of virtual heritage applications. VHN recently caught up with Donald Sanders, President of Learning Sites, architect, archaeologist, computer wizard, world traveller and sought after international speaker, to find out his vision of the Virtual Heritage Industry.
[SANDERS] Learning Sites, Inc. was founded in 1996 as an outgrowth of a series of projects undertaken between my late partner (Bill Riseman) and the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston (Massachusetts, United States) way back in the late 1980s. Those projects involved all sorts of innovative, for the time, detailed computer reconstructions of archaeological sites, which led eventually to our first virtual world in early 1994 (the Fortress of Buhen, set on the Nile River along the ancient Egyptian-Nubian border).
I started Learning Sites for several reasons: (1) to continue to apply the emerging resources capable of virtual reality to aid museums and schools; (2) to find a better way to teach students about architectural history and archaeology that was not dependent on static 2D images (usually photographs of ruined buildings or drawings); (3) to move the field of archaeology away from its centuries-old dependence on plans, sections, and elevations as the only means to visualize and study ancient architecture; (4) to get students of all ages excited about history through the use of interactive real-time media; (5) to preserve deteriorating (paper- and emulsion-based) documentation about our cultural heritage using 2D and 3D digital techniques; and (6) to offer services to a wide variety of users that would aid in the efficient, cost-effective, and globally accessible collection, analysis, visualization, and dissemination of cultural heritage information.
[VHN] What were you doing before Learning Sites?
[SANDERS] Before the actual formation of Learning Sites, my time was split between two projects. I was working as the architecture editor for a J. Paul Getty Trust project called the Art and Architecture Thesaurus. That was a vocabulary standardization project that makes it easier for collections of cultural heritage artifacts to catalogue their objects (or the content of the objects) in a rigorous manner following information science principles to facilitate electronic search and retrieval. At the same time, I was involved with Bill Riseman in projects with the MFA in Boston and in the development of the first virtual reality-based ancient world complete with avatars and embedded information kiosks linked to image and text databases. During the early 1990s we laid the conceptual and technical groundwork for much of the pioneering work that Learning Sites continues to generate. I was also completing a traditional paper excavation report on the ruins of the Hellenistic sanctuary of Nemrud Dagi, Turkey (a site that we have since completely re-created as a 3D digital model--Fig 1).
[VHN] What is your background? and How does that affect your work?
[SANDERS] One of the unique features of Learning Sites is that we are not a pure graphics house. We are instead a staff of professionals with diverse, yet integrated backgrounds. I have professional degrees in both architecture and archaeology, with many years of archaeological fieldwork experience in Greece, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. My interests have always been the search for better ways to understand the use of space in ancient societies through finely tuned analyses of their built environment. When virtual reality appeared on the scene and computer graphics could generate precise re-creations of the ancient world, it finally became possible to experience the past in real time in a near first-person manner, bringing us closer than ever to learning about how the people of the past lived their lives.
I have assembled a staff with expertise tailored specifically to allowing us to ask penetrating questions of our clients, to develop pertinent software solutions, and to speak to our clients in their own language, so as not to force them to learn the arcane and often incomprehensible lingo of VR and CG. Our staff includes archaeologists, architectural historians, art historians, information science specialists, graphic artists, and programmers. Each has an interest in and often schooling in archaeology or architectural history. As a group we are committed to solving our clients' problems, to facilitate teaching about our global heritage, and to advance the study of the past. We do more than generate pretty pictures.
[VHN] LS seems to balance between the Corporate world and academia. How does this work, and how do you interact with each of them?
[SANDERS] This is a tricky tightrope to walk. Each camp has its own working rules, expectations, and goals. And, of course, they have completely different sets of financial constraints. We try really hard to work with each community in its own standard operating procedures. For example, when we speak at academic conferences, we are careful not to make our presentations sound like advertisements for our own methods; instead we go out of our way to talk theoretically using our work only as exemplars. It's tough. We are a corporation and have staff and bills to pay; yet most of our clients come from the academic--read nonprofit--community, such as museums, schools, and archaeologists. Unfortunately, many academic organizations have rather poor working relationships with the corporate world, yet high expectations. Our interactions with each community are pretty much the same. We maintain our high scholarly standards and level of precision for all our visualizations and programming applications no matter what the project.
[VHN] Do you develop you own Virtual Heritage materials or do you look for work being done elsewhere and publish that?
[SANDERS] Both. We have an R&D department that searches for already-excavated and fully published material with which to work (as we have done for one of our educational packages that uses a comparison between an ancient Greek farmhouse and nearly contemporary Greek townhouse to teach school kids about ancient Greek history, geography, economics, architecture, and politics using VR as the interface). And we work with active excavations and archaeological research nearing publication, especially with projects that could benefit from virtual re-creations, either to test hypotheses that could not easily or adequately be tested using 2D media, or to use the immediacy of VR as the visual index to all excavated data being studied or disseminated.
[VHN] What is LS's most exciting work to date? Can you show us some examples?
[SANDERS] Each project brings with it different challenges, and we try to create innovative and specific solutions to assist each site's interpretation and visualization. So each project pushes our capabilities and ingenuity just a bit farther than the previous one (and, of course, the technology keeps racing ahead, sometimes forcing us to alternative approaches). I like to think that all of our projects bring some excitement to the client as a result of new insight into the past that arose from our modeling of their site, but perhaps two of our recent jobs come to mind as the most complex and therefore most demanding in generating creative ways to do virtual heritage.
The first one is Tsoungiza, Ancient Nemea, Greece (a Bronze Age site; c.3200-1400 BCE). For several years now we have been working toward completion of what will become the first archaeological excavation report published using VR as the primary interface. We plan to use virtual re-creations of the trenches as visual indexes to all the data about the site (drawings, photographs, field notebook pages, database records, audio descriptions, textual descriptions, and virtual artifact models). This will create a unique compilation. One of the most exciting aspects of this job as been developing the way users will access the multiple datasets about the site through the use of VR.
For example, users will be able to walk around in virtual re-creations of trenches and selective houses and see artifacts in situ as they were found; be able to select from any period and the virtual world will dynamically change to show only the remains from the selected period; and be able to click on any artifact and bring up a complete index of information about that object (e.g., database record, traditional text description and analysis, photographs, or a high-resolution virtual model) (Fig. 2). And there's more. We have designed a Java-based search engine that allows complex nested Boolean searches across hundreds of very specific attributes of all the 8000+ artifacts uncovered at the site (using categories such as color, size, find spot coordinates, date, and material, all of which are arranged according to the principals of information science and thesaurus construction). The search results link each object with all the other information about it, including its location in the virtual worlds.
The second project I'll describe has also been a long-term and large-scale endeavor. It is the virtual recreation of the so-called Northwest Palace of the Assyrian king Ashur-nasir-pal II, at the ancient citadel of Nimrud (today in Iraq; built in the 9th century BCE). The Palace is an immense building, over 300m long and comprises hundreds of rooms, most of which were originally decorated with over-life-size wall relief carvings and statues. Since the Palace's excavation in the mid19th century, most of the reliefs that had survived have been globally dispersed to dozens of museums and private collections, such that no one can get an accurate or complete understanding of the kings' original design for the stories on the reliefs, and no one today can appreciate the scale and grandeur of the Palace.
It is a prefect scenario for a virtual heritage project--a building complex that is difficult if not impossible to visit today, much of the building has eroded, and its decoration scattered all over the world. How better for scholars, students and the general public to understand the scope of the sculpted panels and enormity of the complex than through VR. Slowly, we have been re-creating the major rooms of the Palace, based on published drawings or newly taken color photographs of the wall reliefs that survive, and new analyses (Fig. 3).
To enhance the experience of virtually visiting the complex, we are adding some exciting features, such as, roving intelligent agents that will act as virtual site interpreters giving directions and information about the building; avatars will allow distance education classes and permit archaeologists remote from each other to carry on face-to-face analytical discussions with each other inside the virtual building; and we will be adding a virtual tool kit to the world that includes a virtual calipers for measuring virtual objects and a virtual telescope for examining the far walls of large spaces without having to walk there.
Developing these kinds of innovations that push the limits of what the VH experience can be makes our and our clients' lives very exciting. We are not in business merely to create good-looking worlds, or to leave virtual worlds sterile, but to be sure that virtual worlds become as socially complex, visually engaging, and dynamically variable as the real world.
[VHN] Can you tell us your most interesting story about working with computers and virtual heritage?
[SANDERS] There are lots of little episodes that emerge during a VH project that make working on a site particularly memorable for us or valuable for the client. Normally, those moments arise when the client or a student or another user gains some insight into the past that could not have been achieved through any other method. It's the little "ah-hahs" or "gee, I didn't know thats" that make our job a delight.
For example, going through the process of building a virtual re-creation of a heritage structure means that we nearly duplicate the original construction process in the computer. In turn, that means that we ask some questions that many archaeologists have never had to deal with before, such as: How tall was the doorway? How did the door pivot and how does that affect the doorframe? How large were the windows, where were they, and does their location and size have any impact on the use of the space, the amount of light that really could enter the room? If the opening is so big, and there is a second floor, then the size of the lintel must be so large, which means that the stone coursing must have been interrupted in this manner.
Or the little surprises, as when one walks through a virtual doorway and suddenly realizes that certain other spaces would or would not be in view from that angle, reinforcing notions about privacy and visual control over spaces. This is when we begin to come to grips with ancient behavior, the one item archaeologists have for decades decried as unknowable about past cultures. Now with VR, the time travel can commence in earnest.
[VHN] What is your vision for the future of Virtual Heritage work?
[SANDERS] The time machine metaphor is still a valid holy grail for those engaged in VH. To be able to step back to another place and time and wander amongst the people unnoticed and truly be able to understand how they lived and played; how they used those spaces that survive so mutely.
My vision is that we can achieve that dream; that virtual ancient worlds can become detailed enough, of sufficient resolution, with fast-enough frame rates, sufficiently populated with freely roaming intelligent characters, and filled with sound, and color, and motion, and animals that when we step into that world we can test all kinds of theories about the past. Students will be able to experience geographically and temporally distant cultures in order to learn and understand in ways that become indelible. Professionals will be able to meet each other in multi-user virtual worlds to discuss new ideas, compare notes about artifact traits, seek answers to complex synchronic and diachronic cultural puzzles.
I firmly believe that we can do this. That we can and must build highly detailed, accurate, and complex virtual worlds with intelligent agents going about their routines, yet able to respond to our questions regarding their spaces, their artifacts, their lives. The worlds will someday approach the vividness of the Star Trek Holodeck®. It may well be that holograms become the next delivery method for VH, along with augmented reality, wearable systems, and wireless links to information.
How much more grand, exhilarating, and desirable would be the study of history in this manner? And when I speak of history or the past, it can just as easily be three weeks ago as three millennia. The present becomes the past before we can hit Control-S. There is much to be digitally preserved, and we must take full advantage of all that the digital medium permits.
[VHN] Do you find it difficult, both financially and research wise, to produce and sell virtual heritage applications?
[SANDERS] As with any endeavor, building virtual heritage sites is still constrained by money, time, and information. As virtual as we are, things are no different for us. The research and information end of the question is easier to answer--doing research is what most of us at Learning Sites were trained to do; to be critical of the evidence; to try and determine what the remains mean, how the site was used, how the buildings looked when they were being used--these must be answered in order to have a satisfactory result. It does take a considerable amount of research into primary source materials in order to get thing right; that is the nature of the game. Otherwise, garbage in, garbage out, no matter how gorgeous the renderings look.
Financial considerations are the tough part. Building quality virtual worlds is labor intensive, both for the construction of the worlds and for the research needed to evaluate the data used to build the worlds. The really difficult part comes in trying to convince prospective clients that the end result is worth the extra up front costs.
Which brings me to a mantra. Building a VH-based product, especially a publication or educational package does cost more than creating a traditional paper-based product, but (and that is a huge but): the results offer the user ten times the amount of information or more; and the results can be made globally accessible more efficiently, more cost effectively, and more quickly than similar products produced and distributed by traditional means.
Further, updates are cheap; new data can be much more easily integrated into a new totality; multiple interpretations in the form of multiple virtual worlds can be offered and changes to the worlds, as a result of new excavated evidence, for instance, can be incorporated into a new world, much more easily that any paper-based product can be updated, expanded or synthesized with new evidence. Thus the financial costs in the long run (which often is not so long) are enormously less per unit of information, per unit of distribution, and per unit of data than any previous dissemination mechanism. And besides, it's interactive, dynamic, and provides an experience unlike any other medium.
[VHN] What is the biggest market for virtual heritage currently?
[SANDERS] If the biggest means most places to show VH material to the public, then it is probably a toss up between museums and directly at the archaeological sites. If biggest market means where is the most funding coming from then the answer is probably government grants, especially in locales sensitive to their deteriorating cultural heritage, like Europe, Asia, or Australia. If the biggest market means the most unit sales of a VH product, then the answer has to be schools and educational materials for grades 4 up through graduate school. Thus in total, the market for VH-based products is huge (and we haven't even mentioned television programs, imagebanks, games, or wayfinding aids).
[VHN] What about Museums, are they receptive to virtual reality or new types of heritage displays using computers?
[SANDERS] From our experience with museums and from our market research, there seems to be some reluctance on the part of art, archaeology, and history museums to accept VH-based interactive exhibits. Science and technology museums, which generally have already accepted the computer as part of their display modes, have tended to look more favorably upon VR-based materials, but have had trouble finding good VH content around which to build a credible long-term exhibit.
For art and archaeology museums, there are three main areas of concern: (1) concerns about the hardware (for instance, accessibility for different age groups, stability of technology, cost of maintenance and upgrades, images are too low-res, the motion sickness aura); (2) concerns about the compatibility of computers and museum objects (for instance, the role of museums historically is for one-on-one contemplation of fine artifacts with no impositions or distractions, VR will outshine the actual objects, traffic flow will bottleneck in galleries with computers); and (3) concerns about what to do with virtual reality-based technologies (for instance, are they games, entertainment, or education, where is the real content, and once we get beyond the wow factor what does VR really have to offer?).
I have spoken in considerable depth about these issues. During these talks, I presented some possible solutions that might help museums to understand the advantages that VH-based displays offer their visitors, and help the VH community to understand more completely the traditional roles of art museums and the roots of their reluctance. This way, I had hoped that the two communities could understand each others points of view and begin to move toward a mutually beneficial working relationship.
[VHN] Do you think there is a gap between academia and corporate work being done in virtual heritage?
[SANDERS] Not so much of a gap, as a difference in the work being produced, the reasons for producing the work, and the resources available for creating a VH product. I suppose in general, large corporations have more computing power and programming resources to throw at virtual models and creating high-res textures, and they tend to run their worlds on higher-end machines than academically constructed models, which tend to be careful modeled, less likely to go out on limb about building forms or furnishings, but have access to more people not quite as skilled, and tend to use lower end hardware to display their results.
[VHN] About the Virtual Heritage community? There seems to be a lot of activity, but not a lot of collaboration between the virtual heritage community? Do you think this is true? If so, what are your ideas or suggestions about focusing it more?
[SANDERS] The use of VR for the interpretation, dissemination, and study of heritage material has dramatically increased over the last 6-9 months, from near dormancy for the several years prior to that (with several notable exceptions). Most of the projects currently underway are done in isolation without much knowledge of or interest in the fact that others may have already modeled that particular site or building.
That may be because there is not yet a single voice speaking for the virtual heritage community, no professional organization to oversee and coordinate efforts. There are now too many virtual heritge-focused conferences around the world, too many separate sessions at disparate venues. This only serves to emphasize the isolation within which many virtual heritage teams work. Learning Sites has tried to alleviate this situation a bit by hosting the "Virtual Worlds in Archaeology Initiative," which attempts to serve as clearinghouse of sorts for virtual ancient heritage projects, to allow developers at place to see and learn about other projects and to get contact information; it is also a venue for projects with no Web access to freely promote their work.
But the Virtual Heritage Network is, to my mind, the logical body poised to become the unifying voice for the virtual heritage community. With a single entity overseeing, coordinating, and speaking for the VH crowd there can be more collaborations, fewer redundant conference sessions, fewer VH conferences in general, easier access to VH-based information (publications, 3D models, primary evidence), and the potential to begin to devise standards for modeling and presentation, guidelines for archiving and for bibliographic citations, and to propose a "professional" organization that practitioners, students, and the public could join.
It could also act as an advocacy body at the level of UNESCO for promoting awareness of our deteriorating monuments. Since the creation of virtual heritage is a global effort for the benefit of all who study, travel, teach, and enjoy the actual remains, having a single entity speak for the worldwide group of developers could only strengthen the process of preserving our shared past, through the use of digital techniques.
[VHN] Archiving virtual heritage, what are your thoughts about this?
[SANDERS] The topic of survival of digital data, not just whether CD-ROMs will outlast books, but whether the file types will be readable to future computers, whether CDs and other storage devices will be able to be accessible in the future, and whether interfaces, such as HTML-based pages or VRML--based heritage will be viewable by future generations are all questions that vex the very fiber of virtual heritage and digital archaeology. They are fundamental questions that we get asked all the time and for which there are not yet really good satisfactory and soothing answers. The CAD community is also going through this debate, as are libraries.
Of course, virtual heritage data need to be archived. They need to be archived in a manner that ensures their future accessibility, reliability, and readability. I do not see the use of CD-ROMs or DVDs today as a limitation, but only the latest in series of temporary and portable storage media with ever-increasing capacity. They are not archival, but only a means whereby individuals can access the data they receive from the creators of virtual heritage.
The data themselves need to reside with groups that will maintain the integrity, readability, and accessibility of the data. Whatever medium the data are copied onto for individual use is really irrelevant to the issue of long-term storage and distribution. In the future, data will be delivered to users on demand to be downloaded onto the users' local storage medium of choice, be it paper, CD-ROM, or whatever the next generation will devise; and whenever the user downloads the data, it must be the most up-to-date version, with all new ideas, data, virtual reality models included. And it must be delivered in formats that the users' machines can interpret--whatever configuration that may be.
The original raw data that makeup the virtual heritage files need to be maintained in file formats that will be readable in the future, or upgraded as the technology changes. This must be done or all credibility in the use of digital re-creations of heritage will disappear as fast as the data is generated.
This means that university presses, corporations, and digital archives (as they emerge) will have to take responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the data they create or that they will store for others. Perhaps we need national or international digital repositories with mandates to migrate the data upward or to maintain legacy computer systems and software, so that old data and storage devices can be read--perhaps something like the Library of Congress, the RLIN network, or the Smithsonian needs to be provided with funds in order to safeguard digital data as dearly as the original heritage itself.
[VHN] What is your best advice to new researchers or people just beginning to use virtual reality in heritage applications?
[SANDERS] Keep pushing the envelope. Keep developing for the next wave, but retain accuracy, links to decision-making steps and the primary evidence, and learn from the missteps of predecessors. VR may not survive as the final arbiter of interactive heritage viewing, but for now it has yet to reach its optimal goals. It takes a team; there is a lot of heritage out there in need of digital preservation and analysis. We must also remember that in order to study and understand the past, we are not constrained by the technology of the past. And our questions about the past can only benefit from new means of visualizing the answers.