Look at all this Stuff! On Playing, Printing, and Virtual Reality in the Digital Humanities

In preparation for this week’s visit with Ken Baldauf at the Program for Interdisciplinary Computing, I was struck by the amount of physical stuff that we were presented with. As we were presented with a lot of information, I will do my best to synthesize and highlight some major points, and to interject what I see as potentials and critiques of these technologies. I wanted to embed this video above as an example of the artistic and storytelling potential of these technologies. I found it through an exploration of the Google Tilt Brush website.

When I approach topics like this, I tend to think about what can I do with it, and how can I teach with it. These same concerns appear to be embedded within the questions that Dr. Graban has posed, as well as the assumption with the variety of introductory materials for this week. The use of 3D scanning and printing have the ability to let us see artifacts, art, history, and material differently. They offer us ways to view and engage with each other, our pasts, and our futures, in ways that are disruptive. As presented, they are also deeply effective pedagogical tools, and can allow us to explore narratives, perspectives, and materials and present them to a variety of people regardless of location or expertise. They allow for a play with the world that was previously unattainable.

While many of these readings and videos were informative on the technologies and their potentials in various spaces, their needs to sell the technology and to pose use-cases was off putting at times. This space, and these technologies are disruptive, especially at the price, availability, and capability that they are coming to. Lifelike virtual reality, such as presented by Lifelique, is becoming more possible and available. If I had the spare $800 for a VR headset, I would love to play around in these spaces.

While there are still several technical and adoption hurdles, virtual reality seems to be here to stay. As someone interested in these technologies, while they are becoming more affordable, they are still out of the grasp of many people and institutions, and could further the digital divide. These VR experiences are also incredibly solitary, at least as presented. One person puts on a headset to enter into the virtual space. I also see a danger of these VR experiences being sold to education, and being purchased, as another panacea (like other technologies before). I see an immense potential—I want to walk around with dinosaurs, explore Mars, and walk through ancient Rome—and the danger of hegemonic perspectives being reinforced. As Davis mentions in her article, VR is an empathy machine, and we need to be aware and critical of using these tools.

I was most intrigued by the ability of 3D and VR to allow for realistic, touchable, and experiential engagement with artifacts and collections of various museums. 3D scanning technologies offer potential new avenues for research as museums scan and share their collections. As mentioned in the Smithsonian video and article introducing their X 3D object site, the scanning has allowed researchers to see things within artifacts and sites that were not available to the naked eye. The use of 3D scanning is allowing researchers to investigate artifacts, see archaeological sites, and bring materials together from disparate locations together for study, without the immense costs of travel or purchase. Researchers could now have access, print, and explore artifacts from around the world. This scanning and sharing could unlock a variety of research, and I’m looking forward to seeing it realized and participating in it.

There is a sense of immense potential within 3D printing, 3D scanning, and virtual reality. The question seems to be, what do we do with it?  What I found most striking to think about was Drucker’s claim “that we demonstrate that the methods and theory of the humanities have a critical purchase on the design of platforms that embody humanistic values.” It isn’t enough to simply analyze or use digital tools and artifacts, but that we need a place in helping to create them. I see the maker and collaborative spaces as a means of doing so, through collaboration, learning, and exploration of tools and technologies.  Drucker made a clear argument about the need for humanities understandings within digital humanities, of a need to introduce and implement computing experiences and systems that attended to the interpersonal.

There was optimism and uncertainty expressed in these pieces. These technologies have been immensely useful within a variety of contexts already, and have gained a remarkable amount of general interest and support. This is certain to continue and accelerate as these tools and technologies become more affordable and have wider adoption. Given this situation of growth, the humanities can not only help craft the narratives, but also collaborate with how they are being told. These technologies allow for other voices to not only be heard, but to be seen, felt, and experienced. By allowing for engagement and play with people, places, artifacts, and history, 3D and VR technologies can be disruptive to the paradigms of knowledge generation and circulation. By allowing anyone with the right access to technology, the ability to engage and experience places and artifacts, the ability to come closer to others is immense.

In our positions as teachers, scholars, writers, and technologists, we can shape not only what these technologies do, but also to critique and present their potential to uncover and promote empathy and understandings between time and space. Constructing and becoming involved in maker and collaborative spaces seem like natural connections for humanists. I see potentials for projects and pedagogies that engage with maker-spaces as sites and structures for instruction. There is potential for new service learning opportunities, transfer, and writing across the curriculum.

These technologies also have the potential to change how we view the humanities, and the methods and methodologies of our research and practice. Engaging fully in the digital humanities through “the tasks of creating metadata, doing markup, and making classification schemes or information architectures forced humanists to make explicit many assumptions often left implicit in our work” (Drucker). The technologies also shape what and how we study, and the ways in which we share it. While I question the idealism of many of the videos and articles, I can see their position as one of optimism. These technologies have already changed so much, and they can continue to shape how, where, when, and what people engage with. As digital humanists, we must work to engage, use, and shape these tools ethically and effectively.

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