Total Immersion and a tribe of synthetic monkeys

Place-Hampi from UNSW iCinema Centre on Vimeo.

This year’s keynote at Museums and the Web was by Sarah Kenderdine, entitled Total Immersion: Re-living the Archive.  Sarah’s work is amazing and her research looks at interactive and immersive experiences for museums.  I had the pleasure of sharing a session with her last year, so I had heard a lot about Sarah’s work already. Despite knowing quite a bit about what Sarah does, it doesn’t take away from the mesmerising work. It was great to hear Sarah’s take on the intersection between cultural data and immersive technology and how it is possible to blur the links between the physical and the digital.

Sarah presented some brilliant projects from ALIVE (Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment) exploring interactive applications inside a series of large-scale immersive visualization systems; including interactive 3D panoramic 360-degree displays, hemispherical domes, and 3D panoptic hexagonal viewing systems.  The projects use massive data sets to create fully immersive experiences.  Sarah’s work just seems to push the boundaries of what is you can do with geospatial, cultural data and immersive technologies.  It was a fascinating keynote presentation on the creation of virtual worlds to engage & immerse audiences.  One that really sticks out is PLACE-Hampi, which is an immersive experience focused on the drama of Hindu mythology and archaeology.  It was fascinating to see how this was created, especially the creation of a synthetic tribe of virtual monkeys.

Throughout the keynote I kept asking myself questions, yes it is amazing, but how much did it cost? Yes it is amazing, but how long did it take to make, is it resource intensive? Yes it is amazing, but is it really required? Yes it is amazing, but why use an iPad interface, why not just interact directly with the data on the wall? Yes it is amazing, but if the dwell time in immersive environments is huge, what happens if there is a queue? What happens if there are lots of visitors? Can an immersive experience be a shared experience in a crowded space?

You may be catching my drift, yes the immersive experiences Sarah has delivered are absolutely brilliant, and in some instances the virtual experience of heritage sites is becoming increasingly important for delicate, over visited and endangered sites.  But is it realistic to create a fully immersive experience, in a time of funding cuts to culture? Is it worth all the time and expense?  One thing that became very clear by the end of the presentation is that Sarah has a clear knack from translating academic concepts into practical engagements that really work for visitors.  I’m just not sure if it’s a sustainable endeavour currently.

Regardless it has got me thinking lots of interesting immersive type things that I would love to explore further, particularly when it comes to textual things, it would be really interesting to have a bit of a play.  I will just have to find a huge pot of money to fund it first.

You can read Sarah’s paper over at the Museums and the Web conference site.

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