When History Meets New Technology
    by Spencer G


While historic preservation and the interpretation of built sites from the past might sound like a backward-looking investigative process, defined by the likes of dusty archives and old books, it is a discipline that has had both the opportunity and the responsibility to embrace new technologies, and look forward in order to look back. 


In our ongoing investigation of the Stone Double Cabin at Birdwood, we most recently engaged with two of the most advanced visualization tools in our arsenal: virtual reality and 3D modeling. These two realms of expertise help preservationists and those interpreting the cultural landscape to engage with their subject matter in ways that defy and exceed the limitations of practical human observation. Together, they help us to not only digitally construct a structure, landscape, or environment and preserve it in perpetuity, but also to step inside of it, explore it from unseen angles, and get up close and personal, whether it means standing on the roof, flying through sky, or inspecting the rafters from the safety of a sofa. 


First was our foray into virtual reality - in this case, more of a chance to get acquainted with the strange sensation overall than digging deep into our actual subject matter of the Stone Double Cabin. We had the chance to utilize the University's VR equipment in the library, under the expert instruction of Arin, who set us up with a VR environment of the Icehouse at Birdwood, a building captured during past years' data scanning. There is an initial boundary to overcome after strapping on the 80's sci-fi-esque headset, which is resigning your initial physical instincts in the newly inhabited virtual world. Oh no! The floor has disappeared! Quick, brace yourself! Except of course, the fall never comes. Gradually the hand controls become more intuitive, and the knee-jerk physical reactions less spontaneous as you adjust to becoming one with the pixels - or better yet, their supreme deity defying the laws of gravity and spatial limitation. Poetry aside, it was immediately evident how benificial it is to be able to orient oneself in an unlimited variety of vantage points - to investigate joinery up in the roof, to look up at window lintels from below the floor line, etc. With our virtual sea legs steadied, Arin then took us to the big guns - a free for all through Google Earth VR, where yours truly was so enraptured by flying through Mad King Ludwig's fairytale Neuschwanstein that all my fears of The Singularity and impending robotic revolution were quickly quelled. However, it brings up the most important lasting question on my mind - will this technology spread appreciation and love of our historic environments that deserve to be preserved, or will it in fact inflict apathy towards their tangible material forms, as we will have increasingly sophisticated ability to preserve them in ever more convincing virtual likeness? Something to think about.... 


We also had an introductory lesson to 3D modeling and rendering in 3DS Max, which, despite an intimidating interface reminiscient of a NASA control center, started to (very slowly) become intuitive as we learned to create forms in multidimensional space. I could feel long-dormant mental muscules straining to life being forced to consider graphs, grids, and axial relationships. Oh Math, you inescapable evil. Inspiring us to trudge through the X, Y, and Z trajectories was the overview of completed work done by our instructor and fellow students in preserving the buildings of the Lawn and Academical Village through 3D rendered recreations, down to beautifully accurate dentil mouldings and Chinoiserie ballustrades. Now, this is Math I can get excited about! 


It was informative and inspiring to see how technology is used to better understand, interpret, and preserve the cultural landscape. However, the question I identified previously still weighs on one's mind: will technology support or supplant our built environment? A definitive outcome on such a polarized provocation may be a long ways off, but it still provides for some good dinner conversation.