Virtual Heritage: A Follow-Up

By April 12, 2017Blog

This post serves as a continuation of a previous blog post I wrote explaining what virtual heritage is and why it’s important to the future of public history.

As I mentioned in my last post, virtual heritage (VH) is the recreation of historic sites or objects using techniques such as computer generated modeling, animation, and panoramic imaging. Its goals are to conserve, reproduce, and display history with the use of advanced technologies. Over the past couple of years I have been working to help develop and evaluate a VH initiative called the Virtual Buffalo Bill Project (VBB).

My master’s thesis centered around conducting a usability and user experience study of the VBB system. For this study, I sat a bunch of people down in front of a computer and had them use the VBB application. They were given time to maneuver their avatar around the recreated environment to explore the project and provide feedback about their experience.

These test sessions yielded some interesting results and helped me develop a few theories about developing virtual heritage projects that I think would be worth pursuing.

When evaluating the UX feedback, I noticed that testers didn’t find the VBB project particularly novel. I was a bit confused by this at first. But then I started connecting the dots. During test sessions, most people referred to the application as a game and some people even made a direct comparison to a PC game. PC games are far from novel, and it makes sense that users would compare VBB to an application it most closely resembles.

People also exhibited a lot of exploration-based behaviors during play-throughs. These behaviors included walking through recreated structures to see what was inside, trying to click on objects to see if they could interact with them, and trying to talk to non-player characters (NPC’s).

This feedback and observations have led me to consider a few possibilities for the future development of VH projects. Right now, developers of VH are at a point where they are trying to figure out how to conduct historical interpretation in virtual reality. I think an interesting paradigm for VH interpretation would be video games. Certain game mechanics could offer interesting opportunities for integrating more historical information and learning opportunities.

Such mechanics could include:

  • NPC dialogue – giving NPC characters dialogue options would allow them to act as first person interpreters in a virtual space.
  • Short mini games or puzzles – a mini game could simulate an activity that someone of the time period would have performed
  • Object to collect or interact with – allow users to interact with objects to learn more about them
  • Menus and information panels – these elements could help deliver more background and primary source materials to the users
  • Narration – give users something to listen to. For example, a person describing what a typical day would be like within the recreated environment.

I think these mechanics offer some ready-made options that could be integrated into virtual heritage applications. They could both increase interactivity and help to deliver a richer historical context to the recreated environment.