Virtual heritage (VH) is often defined as the creation of historically significant objects and environments with the use of 3D computer modeling and virtual reality. Virtual heritage took root as a field of study and practice at the beginning of the new millennium. It grew from the field of archaeology and was facilitated by the growth of 3D modeling programs like CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. As the technology and practice has evolved though, practitioners have started exploring how these computer-rendered environments could be used as tools to connect users to historical content and actively inform them about the past.
VH is still very much a developing field and how best to incorporate historical background information in VH projects has yet to be resolved. So far, most projects have experimented with the use of evolving virtual reality (VR) technologies and interactive features, such as game mechanics or the inclusion of digital archives. However, practitioners are still trying to evaluate which design approaches work better than others.
The Virtual Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (VBB) project is a prototype virtual heritage application that integrates historical information into a virtual environment. This virtual world is partnered with a digital archive that catalogs objects, documents, and pictures of people and places. This archival integration has two goals – to get the user to explore the paradata materials that were used to inform the construction of the 3D models, and to get them interested in learning more about the history of both the Wild West show and its people. To date, the VBB creators have not conducted any formal usability and/or user experience research to thoroughly examine whether their projects meets its key aims. Thus, this thesis will address the following research questions: To what extent do VBB users explore the paradata materials used to inform the construction of the 3D models? And, how effectively does the VBB experience engage users when it comes to learning more about the history of the Wild West Show and people involved in it?
These questions will be explored through a user experience (UX) case study of the VBB Project. This UX study will have four components. The first is a task based study that will help direct users in becoming familiar with the system. This would allow all testers a predetermined amount of time in which they explore the virtual environment. The next component is an observational study, the purpose of which will be to record how the test subjects interact with VBB, including time on task. There will also be a pre and post survey to be taken at the beginning and end of the testing sessions that will track whether or not they learned anything from their experience with the prototype. The last part of the UX test will be a semi-structured interview which will gauge whether or not VBB increased user’s interest in the subject.
This study should help evaluate how effective the project is in achieving the project developer’s goals of encouraging user exploration of historical source materials. And, since the VBB project is envisioned as a smaller part of a larger VH project to be developed in the future, it will help determine whether these specific mechanics are worth replicating in a similar but expanded VBB environment. On a larger scale, this work could determine whether the design of the VBB interactive archive feature is worth replicating in other VH projects. Since there are not many tried and true practices when it comes to VH, determining the usefulness of this feature could help other VH practitioners make good design decisions.