Technological advances help change the world, but it’s people who drive innovation and consider its impact. Addressing today’s most pressing challenges requires people with diverse perspectives responding to real human needs.

Virginia Tech’s Center for Human-Computer Interaction explores the relationships between people and technology, forging new methods, approaches, and innovations through nontraditional academic collaborations. Combining technology and the humanities helps people better understand the world and uncover new ways to create and innovate.

Partnering with the university’s Department of History, the center has helped build two teams of researchers that include historians, computer scientists, educators, and visual artists who are currently working at the forefront of human-computer interaction to enhance people’s understanding of and relationship with history.

Making sense of history

Historical research often involves sifting through huge amounts of information — historical records, photographs, government documents, and deeds — to uncover complete stories about past events. Computational tools can help digitize, organize, analyze, and make sense of this information.

Faculty members in computer science and history are working together to give voice to tens of thousands of American soldiers. The American Soldier in World War II is a project that is making a collection of handwritten reflections by American soldiers serving during the Second World War available to the public. Thousands of volunteers from around the world have helped transcribe more than 65,000 handwritten pages, digitizing these letters to make the text searchable, which allows the public and researchers to read, mine, and interact with these sources. 

Faculty members are helping make the exploration of this data a more thoughtful, strategic, and interactive experience. Using immersive analytics methods, the worlds of data analysis and virtual environments blend, and information is transported into a large, three-dimensional space where users can more easily navigate the information and understand relationships between data sets.

This scanned copy of a handwritten survey response from a World War II soldier says, I'm a lover of popular music. The more I hear Harry James and Glenn Miller the more happier I'm going to be in this army.
The American Soldier in World War II project transcribed handwritten survey responses from World War II soldiers (top). The text of the responses can be viewed, annotated, and organized in virtual reality in the Immersive Space to Think project (below).
This graphic shows boxes of text that are being viewed and organized in virtual reality using the technology in the Immersive Space to Think project.

Team members on The American Soldier in World War II project include Edward Gitre, assistant professor of history; Kurt Luther, associate professor of computer science and history; Chris North, professor of computer science; and Doug Bowman, professor of computer science and director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction.

Innovative storytelling

Technology can also transport people to different places and times, immersing them in engaging worlds to explore different layers of the past in one shared interactive space.

As Virginia Tech prepares for its 150th anniversary in 2022, researchers are experimenting with creative technologies to bring the university’s history to life. The team for the project, VT 150: Visualizing Virginia Tech History, is using projection mapping, digital exhibits, 360-degree video, and augmented reality to create new ways to explore 150 years of Virginia Tech history, with a particular focus on historically overlooked topics, such as Hokie women, student protest, and Black student life.

“New technologies allow us to visualize, understand, and teach about the past in compelling new ways,” said Paul Quigley, James I. Robertson Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies and leader of the VT 150 project. “Imagine standing before a historic building and seeing 3D models depicting what it looked like hundreds of years ago, or layering onto the ‘real world’ photos of long-ago residents standing in the same spot.

“Imagine being in front of a slave cabin and watching video clips of descendants of people enslaved there, or having historical documents appear in front of your eyes that allow you to explore African American experiences. These are the kinds of mixed reality techniques that allow us to bring hidden histories to life for audiences young and old.”

A major focus of VT 150 is the hidden histories of Solitude, Virginia Tech’s oldest building and the epicenter of its history. The team aims to answer one question: If Solitude could talk, what would it say?

The team is using augmented reality technology to develop an immersive experience that will lead visitors through different layers of the university’s past. Wearing head-mounted displays, visitors will be led by virtual tour guides through interviews with descendants of enslaved people, an exploration of 19th-century documents, historical photos, and 3D building recreations.

The faculty and students of the VT 150 team come from across campus — history, computer science, visual arts, university libraries, the VT Stories oral history project, and even mining and materials engineering — combining expertise and interdisciplinary backgrounds to share stories in compelling new ways.

Key collaborators working with Quigley on the project include Jessica Taylor, assistant professor of history; David Hicks, professor of education; Todd Ogle, executive director of Applied Research in Immersive Environments and Simulations; Thomas Tucker, associate professor of visual arts; and Doug Bowman, professor of computer science and director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction.

“Facilitating transdisciplinary projects like these is the reason why CHCI exists,” said Bowman. “It’s exciting to be designing innovative ways to use technology both to empower historical research and to enhance engagement with history.”

The Center for Human-Computer Interaction is part of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). With a focus on pioneering new possibilities with data, the institute fuels the development of new data analysis approaches to uncover hidden patterns and trends that lead to scientific advances. Exploring and presenting data in unexpected and surprising ways can help uncover new perspectives that can pave the way for life changing discoveries.

Written by Susan Bland