Brandon W. Hawk

Getting Medieval in Virtual Reality

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Last week I had my first fully immersive experience with virtual reality. I saw the future, and it is good.

 

My first immersive virtual reality experience.

My experience came about because of the generosity of someone I recently met, Adam Blumenthal, the Virtual Reality Artist-in-Residence at Brown University. Because of my work on our common reading program at RIC, I had invited Adam to give a keynote at our spring Open Books – Open Minds Student Conference, themed around Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. After that event, Adam invited a group of RIC faculty and staff to his virtual reality lab.

This wasn’t my first VR foray, though. A while back I had gotten a hold of a Google Cardboard (a special Star Wars edition) and played with that a bit, but I haven’t returned to it in about a year and a half. Coincidentally, just last weekend a techie friend had pulled out his Google Cardboard to show me a few rollercoaster videos on YouTube, and we were talking about the technology.

Visiting a full virtual reality lab was totally different.

RIC faculty and students with Adam Blumenthal in the Virtual Reality Lab, Granoff Center for the Arts, Brown University.

I’ve learned quite a bit about virtual reality from Adam, both in his talk and at his lab. His own work focuses on educational applications, and he’s currently working on creating a VR experience based on the Rhode Island Gaspee Affair. Some Rhode Islanders would argue that this event (which predated the Boston Tea Party) was the true start of the American Revolution; as Adam claims, “You can trace a dotted line from the Gaspee Affair to the Declaration of Independence.” Over the past several months, Adam has been filming, editing, and building parts of this VR documentary, which includes reenacted scenes and historic locations related to the Gaspee Affair.

Adam’s knowledge of VR doesn’t end with his focus on education and history, though. Both in his keynote talk at RIC and in his lab, it was apparent that he’s spent a good amount of time researching and exploring the emerging technology. After all, he’s been involved with virtual reality design (off and on) since his undergraduate years at Cornell University in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We were able to demo a number of applications on Steam (which, we learned, is one of the largest VR content providers), using the HTC Vive system. Everyone who visited the lab with me was able to try out the VR, and everyone enjoyed it. For those of us waiting for our own turns, we enjoyed viewing the 2D version on a large-screen computer monitor.

Some might call many these of these applications “games,” but not all of the applications are strictly for play. For example, one of my colleagues chose to demo a Google Earth application in which she spent a good deal of time flying over canyon country enjoying the views created by satellite photography. Adam also told us about Google’s TiltBrush, which looks like an amazing 3D painting application (see a video he had shown us previously at the link). Although we only tried out ten applications, we got a look at the larger repertoire available–which includes over 1,600 titles on Steam’s platform.

The software that Adam loaded up when I put on the headset was one of Valve’s own VR games, The Lab. In this environment, users choose from a variety of mini-games, such as knocking over stacked boxes in a warehouse with a mech-powered slingshot or exploring the universe in outer space. Of course I chose the castle defense mini-game called “Longbow.” Valve offers the description, “Use your archery skills to defend your noble castle gate from a rampaging but adorable and equally noble horde of attackers.”

I got medieval in virtual reality.

Here’s how the game looked to viewers on the 2D monitor.

“Longbow” on the computer monitor.

And here’s how I looked while shooting at those funny little attackers. (One of the most fun parts about being an onlooker is watching how ridiculous people look when you can’t see what they can inside the headset.)

Defending my castle with a longbow in virtual reality.

Virtual reality is an experience I’ve wanted to have for years. Many of us who grew up in the 80s have seen VR as a type of icon of the future. Every once in a while, the idea of VR is whispered about as if it could really happen, then it fades away. As I walk through the mall and see the VR headsets for sale in local games shops, that future is emerging. Maybe we didn’t get the hover-boards we were promised, but VR is likely the next computer entertainment product to make its way into our homes.

I also started to imagine other ways that VR could be used in medieval studies. Could we provide students with field trips to some of the historic sites that matter to our field? If we had enough headsets and ability, a group of students could reproduce a piece of Middle English drama in the middle of medieval Oxford just as the guilds did. We could visit Stonehenge at the solstice. We could recreate the Battle of Hastings to show how momentous that multi-army ordeal was. Perhaps we could capture something of what it was like to walk into a medieval cathedral, full of the sights and sounds of sacred space.

With enough imagination, we could harness our own virtual reality technologies to bring the world of medieval multimedia into our present.

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