CAA UK 2001 - Panel Discussion

Misrepresenting the Past: Virtual Reality and Archaeology

Panel: Andrew Millard, University of Durham; Chris Lloyd, QUB; Caitlin Buck, University of Cardiff; Majid Mirmhedi, University of Bristol.

The panel's views:

Andrew Millard, University of Durham:
Many VR reconstructions they differ from artists' reconstructions - they don't portray people therefore there is no real "feel" for the room. Until people are introduced to the scene it's not a good representation of the original environment.

Chris Lloyd, QUB:
It's too easy to believe that the reconstruction is "real".
We need to distinguish between what is real and what is hypothetical.
We must label and make a distinction between imagination and evidence.
VR is a sanitised view of reality: no animals, rubbish, decay etc. We need to include this for better reality.
Competing interpretations are essential.

Caitlin Buck, University of Cardiff:
Everything we recreate is virtual - opinion always comes into play. Why are some more reliable than others?
Why do we presume some interpretations are real and some are not (e.g. line drawings vs. photorealistic)?
Computer VRs are (generally) not designed with archaeology in mind. We must ask: "What are the likely weaknesses?" There is a need to design our own tools for the job.

Majid Mirmhedi, University of Bristol:
We can only gather a certain amount of information with our eyes, but we can try different interpretations (using scientific techniques, e.g. spectral values).
VR works well as an educational tool - it captures the attention of more people.

Discussion opened to the floor:

The introduction of humans is too difficult in VR. Having "stupid looking/unrealistic" humans emphasises the VR aspect.

Representation on computers differs from other methods: general public knows how to critique VR, e.g. television comedy shows satirising VR in archaeology.
There is a need to quantify what is real. The multidisciplinary aspect is important.

Quality of the data.

Everyone used to accept photographs as the truth, yet Photoshop can seamlessly transform them.

There is/should be Code of Ethics amongst archaeologists - must ensure that your peers approve/agree.

The Time Team argument! If something gets people involved in archaeology, is it a good thing?

Metadata (the data describing the data) that lies behind the visualisation is important. There are already standards regarding this (e.g. Dublin standards). Metadata needs to be integrated to add to and explain the interpretation.

VR goes beyond pictures. It should be multi-sensory: use of sound, smell, feel, etc. This has been tried by interpretive centres/museums.

What do we gain out of this realism?
We are trying to get an emotional response from the VR. We are looking for a sense of "presence". There is a distinction between a reconstruction of the past and a sense of actually being in the past.

How possible is the recreation of the environment? For example, we live in a more sanitised, less smelly world. Can we recreate the exact smells of the past or just as much as it takes to make an impact?

Archaeologists are trying to give the public a story - can we fire them up and get them excited? Storytellers are needed!

Why bother to recreate a Medieval Hall when they can wander into a real Medieval Hall?
VR allows a safe and controlled method of studying the past. There is no damage to sites.

We should address the questions:
1) How do we develop a tool for investigation;
2) How to we present it to the public.

VR for the public is all about the "wow" factor.

Virtual Reality is a misnomer - Virtual Representation is more accurate.

Are the general public are only after an experience? Or do they care about reality? Is it hyper-reality as opposed to virtual reality - they remember the smells, not the time.

We need to merge VRs - it's always a subset of reality until we merge our expertise: lighting, pottery, woodwork, topography. One expert will miss the aspects another will focus on. Everyone will use different techniques and different emphases.

Backwards visualisation - we could come up with a scenario for the customer and work backwards.

Computer games - like films - misrepresenting the past. Indiana Jones/Lara Croft give the wrong impression of archaeology.

We all live reality. Are we more sophisticated these days - do we expect more and critique more?

Archaeology is not the only area of academic life misrepresented in the media. It happens all the time in all subject areas, so is any publicity good publicity?

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