Right guys – it’s official, after a wee hiatus this year (have been unbelievably busy, all exciting stuff of course) I’m returning to blogging with full force! As most of you know, in the year or so since I finished my PhD I’ve set myself up to operate freelance and have been working on a wide range of projects, mostly in a commercial capacity though there’s still a fair few research-based ones thrown in there for good measure. Not to mention that I also currently work part-time as a researcher for DJCAD (University of Dundee) and teach a module at the archaeology department in York…as I said, it’s been a busy year!
This blog was originally set up with a research focus and with that in mind I’d held off posting much about the freelance side of things. However, after a few chats with others I’ve realised that actually, the commercial side of things is just as important in the field of heritage visualisation because even if these projects aren’t a product of research questions and experimental context, they’re still an example of my methodologies of working and embody my ideologies for visual communication in the field of archaeology. What’s more, they form a huge part of what the general public interfaces with – so really it’s *visualisation in action* (I imagine that phrase being said in the voice of a 1950s newscaster) in the ‘real world’.
So…with that in mind I’ve asked a few of my clients if they would be happy for me to share some of the work I’ve been involved in over the past year.
The first project I’d like to share with you takes us over the pond to the USA, specifically a farm-holding in Maryland. Earlier this year I began working with RGA, an archaeological firm in New Jersey. They were keen to produce some engaging output for an interactive display which was planned for the atrium of the new Cecil County School of Technology nearby. The project had a number of stakeholders including the Maryland Historic Trust, Cecil County Public Schools and the Public School Construction Program.
Amazingly, RGA brought me over to the States back in April for a visit – I say it in that tone because I’m always so excited to be able to travel with work though as an early-career archaeologist I inevitably still feel some of the lingering ‘impostor syndrome’ that many PhD survivors inevitably experience from time to time…I mean, me? An expert? Really? Coming all the way over there? You’re sure?! Wow!
During the trip I met everyone in the office, spoke at a conference in Atlantic City about the benefits of digital heritage visualisation and got to visit a few of the sites I’m working on for RGA, including Broadlands Farm. It was a fantastic trip and I was really pleased to be able to actually visit the site in person before a number of the buildings were demolished.
Broadlands was an interesting project for a number of reasons, for one it was the largest undertaking I’d project managed to date and the deliverable was going to be fully interactive, something I’d only explored briefly in the past. The plan was to use a gaming engine to host a 3D model of the farm which could be explored (just like a first-person game) and which linked to a parallel archive which could bring up historical information about the site.
So with this aim in mind I pulled together a team to begin work – I’d be doing the modelling, interface design and overseeing the project as a whole. I also called upon the talents of artist and gaming whiz Tone Julskjaer to produce the textures for the models (texturing for games is quite different to that of animation or stills so her skills were greatly appreciated). Of course Kieran was involved as well (after all these years it’s safe to just go ahead and always assume Kieran is involved in some capacity – we’re well established partners in crime at this point!) and did a great deal of work sussing the Unreal Engine 4 set up and generally being the helpful genius that he is with all things visual.
We also enlisted the external help of the Open Virtual Worlds team at St Andrews (now going by the name Smart History) to link up our Unreal Engine environment with an Omeka site designed with input from RGA, myself and Kieran, enabling the user to click on an object in the environment and bring up a split screen with relevant historical information.
Budget and time was tight so we elected to go for a simple and slightly stylised aesthetic for the model – cheap and cheerful! That being said I think the environment worked really well and certainly gives a good overall experience of the farm. (Oh go on, let me say it…it looks pretty darned good for our first foray into gaming! Our wee team did good, real good.)
Reflecting on the project I have to say the ‘gaming’ angle is a really great concept for visual communication. Being able to link the archive material to an explorable 3D environment meant that the user was able to spatially contextualise the information and get a real sense of the place.
Now I’ve had a taste for interactive exhibits I’m excited to develop more gaming style applications for heritage related projects in the future, it’s certainly a promising format. I’d love to be able to link you to play the application but unfortunately for the time being it only exists on the kiosk installed in the school’s atrium so you’ll have to visit Maryland for yourself!