A Reason for Rezzing: How and Why We Built King Tut Virtual

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Hi. I’m one of the builders of King Tut Virtual. My job is taking historical sites and artefacts and reproducing them in an immersive environment that you can explore. This artificial world is only one aspect of Heritage-Key’s large multi-faceted online presence. As virtual worlds are a bit novel, I’ve been asked to explain what we did, how we achieved it, and tell you a bit about the rationale of our approach. More general information about the virtual world is covered in other articles.

What is Heritage Key Virtual?

HK Virtual allows you to explore a 3D reconstruction of historical sites. We’re all familiar with exploring 3D environments in games, and this is a similar concept with more serious content and goals. You explore this environment using an avatar – a 3D representation of yourself. This proxy self assists your interaction in the virtual world, giving a sense of presence and identity allowing you to move about and talk or interact with others.

Our first public project was to reproduce the treasures of King Tutankhamun. These were discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt – the massive burial site of many Egyptian pharaohs, most of which had been plundered of their most interesting treasures in previous centuries. (In fact many of the tombs had been plundered thousands of years ago by subsequent pharaohs!) That the tomb had remained unopened made this a significant archaeological find. The incredible cache of riches encased inside made it even more so. The boy king became a global hit, and still draws millions of visitors to exhibitions around the world.

We built a miniature version of the Valley of the Kings (circa 1922) so that visitors could get a sense of the layout of the tomb complex. One can walk down into Tutankhamun’s tomb and view the wall paintings. We reproduced the most significant burial artefacts, including the death mask – perhaps the most recognizable and famous archaeological find of this century. A reproduction of a pharaoh’s house was built so one could experience life on the Nile delta in ancient Egypt. (The house is modelled on the house at Amarna, but is an interpretation as archaeologists are still arguing about the finer details.)

To enhance the experience of these 3D environments and artefacts we created a web-like information system and audio tours to tell folk more about interesting features (and in-world movies are coming soon too.) To provide some light all-ages entertainment we even created an archaeological digging game – which is educational to boot.

Work on the King Tutankhamun material continues, but we’re secretly hard at work building further historical sites, artefacts and activities that we’ll reveal soon.

How did we do all That?

I’m glad you asked. The first things to be built were Tutankhamun’s treasures. These artefacts were meticulously reproduced by hand in 3D modelling applications using measurements and photos (by Sandro Vannini) of the actual objects – both as reference, and in the case of the photos, actually mapped onto the 3D model. When you’re looking at these reproductions, in a sense you’re looking at a 3D photo of the actual thing.

I’m often asked why we don’t use 3D laser scanning (which is in common use in the archaeological community now for documenting objects). This technology is quite wonderful, but produces very large datasets. These make it very difficult to reduce the complexity to a level that is friendly to the speed of home computers and bandwidth of an internet connection.

As players of current generation computer games will be aware, one pays for super high visual quality beforehand by waiting a long time for content to download, yet this still compares unfavourably to an actual photograph. We’ve left the ultra high rez scans to the realms of academic study and integrated real photography to show finer detail when required. Our objective was to allow the experience of history, so have worked hard to keep the experience quick and lean, rather than overemphasize redundant fidelity at the expense of usability.

Our reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb and treasure, the Valley of the Kings and Amarna used many references. We called on satellite imagery, Howard Carters original notes (which we’ve found sometimes inaccurate and misleading), and great archaeological resources such as the Theban Mapping Project. The photos Harry Burton took of the Carter dig in the 1920s were invaluable in reproducing the period. Photo reference by Sandro Vannini also played a huge part, and his photography can be seen in a dedicated virtual gallery and the in-place artefact documentation.

Originally we prototyped the build in the ‘Second Life’ virtual world. Though this had its limitations, it allowed us to access a large pre-existing audience for “user acceptance testing” (as they call it in the industry.) When we had gained enough insight we moved the project onto OpenSimulator – a related virtual world technology that we are able to host ourselves, extend and refine how we wish.

We simplified the overly complex experience by designing new “client” software to allow folk to connect to our virtual world. The Heritage-Key Viewer provides streamlined access, without the many confusing options not directly related to experiencing our world. A one-click web-based login system eases entry – everything is tied back to the heritage-key.com site.

We also extended heritage-key.com to act as a traditional web CMS (content management system) for the virtual environment. Traditionally viewing 2D content in virtual environments has been a bit clunky, and usually designers have simply relied on breaking out of the 3D environment to a web browser. We have used this approach when appropriate too – but believe it often breaks a sense of immersion and engagement. Instead we are bringing web-like content into the world itself. This requires a novel approach to writing and design which you’ll see in the “library pages” throughout HK Virtual, and soon in a new orientation system. This system also serves audio narratives, and soon video.

Why did we do This?

We feel that there is value in finding new ways of exploring our own heritage which leverage the internet age. It’s easy to

When we see a representation of a human (such as our avatar) doing something, parts of our brain fire as if we were actually doing it ourselves… It is almost as if we have tiny avatars living in the premotor cortex and parietal lobes of our brains.

forget that Google is only eleven years old, yet it has had a profound effect on how we understand and access information. The immersive internet (3D) is still in its infancy, yet millions engage in online gaming on a daily basis. We have come to realize that there may be other value to be gained from immersion than pure frivolity.

Several of our team members have previous experience in the education sector, where various “learning styles” are employed to optimise retention and understanding. Basically some folk learn best by seeing, or exploring on their own, by engaging in activities or by some combination thereof etc. The written component of learning is well catered for by the web. It stands to reason that immersive environments may present new opportunities for addressing other learning outcomes.

There has been research into using multiple simultaneous media and immersion (so called multimodal learning) since the 1950s’. However, due to an unfortunate circumstance, many of the outcomes of this approach have been derailed. (You can read about the myth of “Dale’s cone of learning” and efforts to redress it in this pdf. ) So the prevailing theory, even when well applied, has lead to lacklustre learning outcomes.

So what do we actually know, now that reliable empirical research into learning styles (from the cognitive and neuro sciences) is appearing? Several potentially useful facts emerge:

  • Retention is improved through words and pictures rather than through words alone.
  • Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near each other rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  • The more complex the material becomes the greater the gains from “stage managing” the experience (Direct manipulation, animation, pacing etc.)
  • Students engaged in learning that incorporates multimodal designs, on average, outperform students who learn using traditional approaches with single modes.

There are many areas of learning where multi-media and immersive environments are a distraction rather than help to learning. Virtual worlds aren’t a magic bullet approach, but where appropriately designed and applied immersive environments can show measurable gains in retention and understanding.

Now for the Science bit…

Neuroscience is starting to unravel mechanisms to explain these gains. Of particular interest are mirror neurons – parts of the brain which fire both when we perform an action, and when we see an action performed by others. These have been found in the human brain closely associated with areas involved in our understanding of visual/spatial information (and perhaps language acquisition.) (See Mirror Neurons and Common Coding Theory.)

When we see a representation of a human (such as our avatar) doing something, parts of our brain fire as if we were actually doing it ourselves. This helps explain how – once the novelty wears off – exploring virtual spaces with an avatar can give us such a strong sense of immersion. It is almost as if we have tiny avatars living in the premotor cortex and parietal lobes of our brains. At the very least, this internal representation gives us an intuitive sense of relative scales when exploring. It probably helps our understanding in many other ways that we are yet to discover.

While science debates the mechanisms behind immersion, we can still use it to our advantage. We can virtually dig up artefacts, explore Carters archaeological site, or unravel the many layers of Tut’s burial trappings – all achieving a hands-on sense greater than through reading (or video) alone. This feeling of immersion grounds the imagination and provides an extra layer of empathy with the material.

Cognitive science aside, avatars have psychological benefits. The avatar, as a representation of a human being, is the most natural metaphor for communication in immersive spaces. Exploring can be an educational, social and shared experience. It needn’t be all about education either – immersion and engagement are what they are regardless of what end one wishes to apply them to. For us, it’s all about creating experience.