Extended reality: the future of visualizing the past
March 11, 2022
Virginia Tech’s campus is brimming with stories longing to be told.
Telling those stories, with an emphasis on marginalized voices, was the idea behind “Visualizing Virginia Tech History,” a Humanities Week event that used multimedia displays and augmented reality to bring history to life.
Hosted by the Virginia Tech History Lab, the event was held in February at Solitude — a major focal point of the exhibit. Built more than 200 years ago, the home is the oldest structure on the Blacksburg campus.
Today, Solitude is overseen by the university’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity. But thousands of years before students set foot on campus, the property was Indigenous land. And later, in 1833, Robert Taylor Preston inherited Solitude and the surrounding grounds — establishing it as one of the more successful plantations in the region. During this time, the Fraction Family House was built to help accommodate the dozens of enslaved people living on the property.
“It’s got all of these layers of history,” said Paul Quigley, director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War History. “Being able to bring those multiple histories together in one experience where people can explore the overview, but also dive into the bits that interest them, is made possible by technology.”
Liv Wisnewski, a master’s student in material culture and public humanities, said she has noticed a major increase in land recognition over the past four years.
“Acknowledgement is the first step,” said Wisnewski, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history and theatre arts from Virginia Tech in 2021. “What do you do once you’ve acknowledged something? Learning the history, sharing the history, and making that history accessible in ways that are engaging and potentially entertaining to younger audiences is one of those further steps we can take.”
The event also marked the beginning of a “larger vision” for Solitude as an exhibit space, Quigley said, noting it was an opportunity to showcase the ways in which technology improves the presentation and comprehension of the humanities.
“Most of us in the humanities, including me, tend to write journal articles and books,” he added. “But using technologies like extended reality and projection mapping can really open things up and get people interested in history and other humanities disciplines in new kinds of ways.”
Inside the historic home, images were projected onto a 3D campus model as a narrated video played in the background, detailing 150 years of Virginia Tech history. Guests were also encouraged to explore the changing scenes of Virginia Tech, such as the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests, through virtual exhibit displays set up throughout the gallery.
But the main attraction was outside, where members of the History Lab hosted guided tours of the grounds. Using iPads, tour guides shared tales of those who once lived on the property, as well as images of historical documents, like an 1850s U.S. Slave Schedule featuring Robert Taylor Preston and 24 enslaved people.
Todd Ogle, executive director of Applied Research in Immersive Experiences and Simulations (ARIES) in the University Libraries, said the project paints a profound picture of Solitude — one that can’t be captured by simple historical markers.
“What we’re trying to do here is tell the stories of people who were here before us and help uncover those stories, because they’re not seen,” Ogle said. “There are many lived experiences that were here in the past before any of us were. We’re trying to use these technologies, not just the augmented reality, but the map and the photos, to help people understand what happened here, who lived here, and what their experiences were.”
Quigley said aspects of the project have been in the works for years at this point, and many of the students who began working on it have now graduated. Altogether, he said, the event was made possible by a team of about 25 people spanning a range of disciplines.
“It’s been a case of trying to recreate new generations of students to pick up the work and carry it on,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful process of collaborating across the disciplines and learning from each other. But also, a hallmark of our project has been the faculty and student collaboration outside the classroom.”
He said he hopes the exhibit will be displayed for several months at least during the university’s Sesquicentennial Celebration, if not longer. Regardless, he said to expect more exhibits of its type in the future.
“We just happen to be the first project group who have moved in and worked on it,” Quigley said. “People seem to love being here and are enjoying the exhibits. Several people have said the use of technology makes it more engaging to those who might not otherwise feel interested in history.”
Written by Kelsey Bartlett
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