Frischer puts reality into the humanities —virtually
|Bernard Frischer the newly appointed director of IATH, in front of a virtual re-creation of the Roman Forum.
By Jane Ford
Bernard Frischer is taking the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities into a new dimension. The recently named director envisions creating a new paradigm for both humanities research and education that incorporates virtual time travel into the institute’s multi-dimensional realm. To that end, plans are already under way for a virtual reality lab and virtual theater at U.Va.
“Visualization allows expression in detail and graphic ways that make clear what you know and do not know,” said Frischer, an expert in virtual reality and a leader in the application of digital technologies to humanities research and education. Before coming to U.Va. last fall, Frischer founded and directed the Cultural Virtual Reality Lab at the University of California-Los Angeles. His virtual re-creations of the Roman Forum and the Roman Colosseum have received international acclaim.
The new lab he is creating at U.Va. is at first glance underwhelming — two computers in a small cubicle in the IATH offices in Alderman
Library. But a black box, about the size of a large shoebox, is the critical piece of equipment. It’s a PC with a graphic card called a Shuttle, and it contains powerful, state-of-the-art virtual reality software, which today is commercially available and affordable.
By contrast, the computers in the UCLA lab were as big as an armoire and cost $1 million, said Dean Abernathy, an architect and expert in modeling, who worked with Frischer there and now is helping to set up U.Va.’s lab, a $200,000 project that is being built with funding from the Office of the Vice President and Provost. Abernathy also is teaching a course in the School of Architecture on visualization and architectural culture.
“Virtual reality is a tool for presenting, constructing and understanding,” Abernathy said. “It’s a way to place yourself in the data in some way — to close the gap between field- or ground-work, publication and the classroom.”
U.Va.’s planned virtual reality theater will change the way humanities scholars interact and provide an expanded level of understanding in the classroom, Frischer said.
Based on a scientific model of scholars working together as a team to explore a topic, humanities scholars would come together in the VR
theater to look at data compiled from numerous sources and be able to explore and build on each other’s observations. This model of cooperation in research differs from the traditional humanities model, in which one scholar works alone and publishes the findings in a book or article. Hosting international academic conferences in the VR theater will open up and add to the academic conversation, Frischer said.
Already he has seen collaborative interest among the humanities and other disciplines at U.Va. The Virginia Visualization Group, a new initiative that has attracted almost 25 faculty members interested in virtual reality from across Grounds, has been meeting since the fall. The informal group includes faculty members from computer science, architecture, sciences and the humanities who meet monthly to share information and talk about their work. They are also contributing to the early planning of the VR theater, for which the provost’s office has earmarked an additional $150,000 next year.
“We are creating a culture here that we did not have at UCLA,” said Frischer, who also holds joint appointments in U.Va.’s classics and art history departments.
Frischer demonstrated in the IATH lab how his model of the Roman Forum could be used for class instruction in the new VR theater. Not only is it possible to travel through the model, seeing the way the Forum was constructed, but it’s also possible to navigate in any direction and to journey between time periods. That’s what is unique about Frischer’s technology — it’s 4-D, with the added dimension being time.
“By time-traveling through the model, we are able to discuss the different phases of the Forum,” Frischer said. “Virtual reality allows you to open up discussions with students that were too hard to do before. The possibilities are endless, and we’re still learning to exploit the tool.”
A recent technological breakthrough will allow students to access the virtual reality re-creations and databases and be active participants using open-source software. Before this breakthrough, “students did not have the opportunity to possess this technology. Now it will be accessible on PCs,” Frischer said.
In addition to the lab and theater, Frischer’s vision includes collaboration with other institutions and industry. A recent $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation will bring together IATH, UCLA, the University of Vienna and the Cathedral Library at St. Gall in a visualization project partnership. The group will work together to create a high-resolution digitization of the building plan of St. Gall. Although the medieval monastery was never built, the plan had a widespread impact on early medieval monastic architecture. The digital plan and accompanying database of texts, objects, and construction materials and techniques will be a resource for the study of the ideal monastery and its culture.
As well as the creation of digital scholarship, its publication, maintenance and preservation are of great interest to Frischer. He described his
ideal research library for the digital age in a paper, “The Ultimate Internet Café.” When he came to U.Va., he said he was delighted to find many of the components he outlined in his paper already physically here. Along with IATH, Alderman Library houses other digital-based entities, including the Virginia Center for Digital History, the E-text Center, the Geospatial and Statistical Information Center, as well as the Media Lab in nearby Clemons Library. “There’s even a café” in Alderman, he said.
Frischer’s vision goes beyond scholarship and education in the university setting. On a global scale, he foresees virtual reality theaters in
museums and other public places as a tool for building understanding among people and a vehicle to promote peace by linking a global computer base of many cultures.
“By learning about other cultures and seeing them come to life,” Frischer said, “We can overcome alienation and feelings of otherness.”