Broadlands Farm: Gaming and an Interactive Archive

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.

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The iconic barn at Broadlands Farm, snapped during my visit back in April.

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Exploring the upper story of the barn.

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.

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Another view of some of the tenant houses at Broadlands – visiting in springtime made for some stunning foliage!

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.

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The splash screen for the application which blends the model with an old black and white aerial of the farm.

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.

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Exploring the interface…

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.

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A screen grab showing the split interface between the archive and the environment.

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Another view of the interface in action – during ‘game-play’ the chair on the porch glows and the user nears it, once they click on it it links to a page about Hoagland Gates.

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.)

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A view of our Unreal Engine 4 environment of Broadlands Farm (looking over to the tenant houses), complete with a period-authentic Farmall tractor.

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Another view of the farm in Unreal.

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Exploring the farm – if there’s one thing Unreal Engine loves it’s lens flare!

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!

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6 comments

  1. Great job!

    >

  2. Quite intriguing addition to a farm visit.

  3. Hi Alice, looks great. Quick question. Why was Unreal chosen and not say Unity or Stingray as the gaming engine? The reason i ask is that i presumed you modelled in 3D Max and there is now a seamless workflow to Stingray…

    1. Thanks Robin! Well initially we had planned to use Unity but it was right around the time Unreal became free for educational/low budget use so we elected to give it a whirl. Stingray wasn’t actually available yet at the time the project was initiated but I have it now and am certainly looking forward to playing around with it! …I may also be making the switch from Max to Maya – it’s finally happened!

      1. Cheers Alice, I just realised the timeline of the project after I had posted! I have been looking at Stingray and it is still quite glitchy considering its relatively new (it having been formerly Turbosquid) to the Autodesk stable…The workflow from MAx to Unity is actually more straightforward, at present. specially with the AMC script that allows you to bake all materials and shadows in Max prior to export to Unity….Can I ask why are you switching to Maya?…is it not more for Character animation as opposed to the built environment?…or do I they have the wrong perception of it?

      2. The switch to Maya is mainly down to doing a lot of my projects in collaboration with Kieran Baxter and he uses Maya so it’s much less of a headache if we’re both Maya users – additionally the lab I work part time in at Dundee (at DJCAD) is Maya-based so I’ve had the opportunity to learn it through that research post. So nothing other than current circumstance really! Nice to be skilled at each, might as well! (Sorry if I’m a bit slow to reply, I’m currently camping in New Zealand so wifi access is dodgy at best, haha!)

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