Immersive Global Middle Ages

Institute Technology

A significant consideration as it relates to the success of the Institute are the hardware and software needs of participants. The standard new desktop computer used by a humanities professor is utterly inadequate to support our participants’ work with immersive worlds. The Institute will award technology stipends of $3,800 to participants for the purchase of an Alienware R11 computer, an Oculus Rift headset, and a license for SketchUp Pro software. (Note: While participants will need these resources for their Institute training and intensive projects, teaching professors can bring components of their work and a simplified curriculum into their own classrooms using the free web-based version of SketchUp.)


Hardware and Software Provided to Institute Participants

Among the Institute’s mission critical elements is the selection and purchase of computing hardware and software. The computing demands of constructing and operating immersive worlds cannot be underestimated and for this reason this Institute will offer participant stipends to purchase the necessary hardware and software. The standard new desktop computer used by a humanities professor is utterly inadequate to display video-intensive cityscapes as small as four-square miles (a very small city environment) without extensive lag time “draws” and almost immediate “crashing”. Standard PCs lack more powerful CPU processors, GPU video cards that support complex video and VR headsets, and solid-state hard drives that support instantaneous read-write commands. For example, a good quality desktop computer (such as the Dell Optiplex 7080) is typically packaged with an Intel Core i5-10500 CPU, NVIDIA GeForce GT 730 GPU with 2GB of VRAM, 8 GB of RAM, and 500GB SATA hard disk drive. The computer that participants will purchase with their stipend is an Alienware R11 that is configured with an Intel Core i7-10700K CPU, NVDIA GeForce RTX 3080 GPU with 8GB of VRAM, 32GB of RAM, and a 512GB solid-state hard disk drive. In terms of CPU processing power, the required Alienware machine records a CPU Mark (a standard performance measure) of 19,554 versus the Dell a CPU Mark of 13,373. The Alienware machine’s CPU is approximately 1.5 times more powerful than the Dell. More importantly, the Alienware machine’s video processing power scores a 24,120 GSD Mark Score versus the Dell an 805 GSD Mark Score; the Alienware’s video power is approximately 30 times that of the Dell machine. In short, as immersive worlds are incredibly video intensive, the participants require this specialized hardware. The Institute will award technology stipends of $3,800 to participants for the purchase of an Alienware R11 computer customized for immersive technology (monitor, keyboard/mouse, a 3-year onsite support/warranty) at a cost of $3,400; an Oculus Rift headset ($300); and a two-year license for Trimble SketchUp Pro modeling software ($100).

Through its curriculum, the Institute will facilitate the integrative investigation of cultural, religious, economic, political, and environmental dynamics and factors that shaped global medieval communities. We accomplish this by creating geographically-accurate, 3D medieval cityscapes that use digital-layering of qualitative and quantitative data gathered from primary sources, maps and city plans (Google Earth/digitized antiquarian maps), and secondary studies.  

We teach SketchUp Pro to humanities researchers because it allows them to garner the ability to create original digital artifacts (objects, devices, architecture and structures, terrain, persons, flora and fauna) and to generate realistic cityscapes and historical communities. A comparison of the software user interface of SketchUp Pro versus the corollary one of Blender (a standard design application) demonstrates how the software we have selected is a more welcoming one for participants. Avoiding overly complicated software is crucial to our approach to training new digital creators.

Avoiding Unnecessary User Interface Complication:
SketchUp Pro (top) vs. Blender (bottom)

While SketchUp is less difficult to use, it can produce highly-accurate and visually-compelling digital artifacts with minimal training. For example, see the digital model of medieval bishop’s crozier created by one of our students who only received two weeks of instruction using SketchUp Pro.

By using this software, humanities professors can eliminate their dependence on computer scientists or external contractors to build their worlds. SketchUp Pro allows investigators, students, and the public to walk, fly, and omnisciently view immersive worlds using a virtual reality headset, handheld device, or personal computer. SketchUp Pro exports “standalone” immersive environments with no complicated technical processes; it is as seamless as opening a Microsoft .doc file. Moreover, using SketchUp Pro, the user can “toggle” descriptive data “tags” and “section planes” that visually communicate different lenses of analysis, for example, the religious identity of residents who resided in individual houses in a city. See the figure below for a sample of the toggle feature that features a synagogue, mosque, and several Christian structures in Martinez-Davila’s Virtual Plasencia 2.0.

Limoges Crozier (13th Century): Original and Digital Artifacts

Virtual Plasencia 2.0

Alongside these tools, we also instruct in the creation of Dublin Core Metadata Schema so that researchers can properly document their digital artifacts and models per this internationally recognized standard of sixteen descriptors. As the Institute progresses over its 28-month timeline, we will publish its entire curriculum of virtual workshops and instruction using a web-based, self-guided Canvas course that is open to the public and freely-distributable using Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. In this manner, the Institute can deliver its curriculum to a broader audience during the project’s lifetime and thereafter. Lastly, the successful development of complex digital projects also requires robust project management processes and tools. We will teach participants to use the web-based Slack website to manage their own multi-phased projects (conceptualization, resource identification, task assignment, milestone measurement).