Following in Rabelais’ Footsteps

Immersive History and the 3D Virtual Bldgs. Project.

Journal of the Assoc. for Hist. and Computing. 6(2). Sept. 2003.
Abstract:  In Europe and North America, scholars are only beginning to shed the assumptions of print culture. They are also only beginning to perceive the possibilities of a computerized, electro-magnetic culture. Virtual Reality (VR) — the generation of artificial, three-dimensional, immersive environments by the computer — is the codex of our time. As a medium of communication, it presents new methods of representation, and new forms of narration for historians. As a technology of representation, it affords the opportunity to generate new conventions, for communication, and for documentation.   In this study, I argue that 3D-immersive environments — Virtual Reality — should not be construed as a thoughtless import from popular culture. On the contrary, I suggest that VR, properly applied, has the potential to heighten the effectiveness of historians, as teachers, as communicators, and as researchers.  Specifically, I suggest VR can be used to heighten the critical thinking skills of students. I further suggest that VR will soon enable environmental, urban and cultural historians to produce models of far greater range and sophistication than is possible in print. To support this argument, I present the 3D Virtual Buildings Project as a framework for discussing what is currently possible, and as a prototype for discussing what will soon be possible.


Part One describes the aims and history of the project, and in particular the circumstances in Canada that led to its founding.


In Part Two, I provide a description of the project's teaching method. Stated simply, our aim is to help students realize an important concept about historical representations, namely that they are models, models that are imperfect representations of the objects they purport to represent. We believe that students best learn this insight by constructing a historical artifact for themselves. We also believe that 3D objects provide participants with a more efficient way to gain this understanding, when they are used in place of text and number as the raw material for models.


Finally, in Part Three, I describe the project's website, which was generated to display multiple historic urban environments. My purpose in this section is two-fold. The first is to demonstrate that historians, be they urban, cultural, or environmental researchers, can produce representations of far greater range than is possible in print. I also present this section to demonstrate a second point, that resorting to virtual environments will demand that historians change their practice, particularly with respect to composition. Some conventions will have to give way, such as single authorship, and the conception of historical models as essentially fixed entities, immune to revision except under extraordinary circumstances. When we speak of virtual environments, we speak of a potential to represent domains of the past that far exceed print. As Janet Murray and Tom Taylor have noted, virtual reality offers the possibility to generate narratives with tactile, olfactory and auditory information. It further affords the possibility of populating virtual urban systems with avatars, virtual representations of people, that move and interact in an autonomous fashion. It finally suggests the possibility of inscribing laws of physics to govern interaction and movement, similar to laws governing the real world.