9B. Modelling Virtual Space

(JDrucker 9/2013)

The use of three-dimensional modelling, fly-through user experience, other forms of navigation and wayfinding in the virtual world, has increased as bandwidth has become less of an issue than it was in the first days of the Web. The illusion that is provided by three-dimensional displays is almost always the result of extrapolation and averaging of information, or the creation of purely digital simulations, images that are not based in observed reality or past remains, but created to provide an idea of what these might have been. The very capacity for an image to be complete, or even replete, makes it seductive in ways that can border on deception, inaccuracy, or promote entertainment values over scholarly ones. Many specific properties of visual images in a three-dimensional rendering work against a reality effect by creating too finished and too homogenous a surface. The rendered world is also often created from a single point of view, extending perspective and its conventions to a depiction of three-dimensional space. Our visual experience of the world is not created this way, but integrates peripheral vision and central focus, as well as the multiple pathways of information from our full sensorium. The artifices of the virtual serve a purpose, but as with any representations, should be examined critically for the values and assumptions they encode. The force of interpretative rhetoric increases with the consumability of images and/or simulated experience.

Exercise: Al Sayyad’s Experiential model of Virtual Cairo: What was the research question Al Sayyad had? (Why is the date 1243 crucial to that question?) How did he balance the decisions between fragmentary evidence and the “seductive power of completeness” that virtual modelling provides?

Exercise: Bonde’s article contains a number of crucial points about the “problematized relation” between model and referent that comes into three-dimensional formats (these are present in language, images, and data models as well, but have less rhetorical force). Nonetheless, fully aware of the possible traps and pitfalls, she and her team were interested in the ways three-dimensional reconstructions of monastic life in Saint Jean-des-Vignes Soissons could shed light on aspects of daily experience there that could not be modeled using other means. In order to keep issues like the problems of “incomplete data” or “uncertainty” in the foreground she worked using non-realistic photographic methods and kept charts. Why? And what did this do for the project.

Look at this: http://www.wesleyan.edu/monarch/index.htm

Compare with Amiens: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/Mcahweb/index-frame.html

Exercise Johanson’s research question was rooted in the distinction between the kinds of evidence available for studying Rome during the Republic (mainly textual) and Imperial Rome (archaeological) and how the understanding of the scale and shape of spaces for public spectacles in the former period might be reconciled with textual evidence using models. Using Johanson’s project, apply Bakker’s criteria of refutability and truth-testing. Why do different kinds of historical evidence require different criteria for assessment—or do they? http://www.romereborn.virginia.edu/

Exercise: Design an experiment in which you use concepts of refutability and truth-testing within the Rome Reborn environment. How can you build “refutability” into the visualization or virtual format? Why does Johanson suggest that “potential reality” is an alternative to “ontological reality” of what a monument might have done?

Platforms for modelling three-dimensional space create simulations of space based on wireframes and surface renderings that incorporate point-of-view systems based on classical perspective. The cultural specificity of space and spatial relations is neutralized in these platforms, which treat alls pace as if it were simply an effect of physical measure. Virtual spaces are immediately replete, pristine, do not show or acquire marks of use, wear, or human habitation, and are stripped of the dimensions that engage the sensorium in analog space, but they are extremely useful for testing and modelling hypotheses about how movement, eyelines, use, and occupation occur.


All narratives contain ideological, cultural, and historical aspects. Most are based on an assumed or ideal user/reader whose identity is also specific. No information structure, narrative, or organization is value neutral. The embodiment of cultural values is often invisible, as is the embodiment of assumptions about user capacity and ability. To expose cultural assumptions and values, ask what can be said or not said within the structure of the project, what it conceals as well as what it reveals, and in whose interests it does so.

Required reading for 10A

Study Questions for 10A

  1. What is “topic modelling” and how does it relate to other topics we have looked at in this class?
  2. How could any of the principles outlined by Marcus, Boor/Russo, or Evers be used to rework the Rome Reborn model? How would this fulfill the idea of the “moral obligation” to localize representations of knowledge?
  3. What are the cultural values in digital humanities projects that could be used to open up discussion about hegemony or blindspots in their design? How important is this?

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