From Roman Portus to Medieval Bodiam – virtually

Today I had a meeting with brothers Joe and Ken Rigby. We met in a faux-medieval world, of the sort familiar to players of Skyrim, World of Warcraft and many (many) others. I’d arrived as a woman, so Joe helped me find a more masculine avatar, then a quick tutorial in walking, running, flying with a rocket-pack, and we were off exploring.

Joe is convinced there’s a market in building historic environments in the Unreal engine, and he and Ken have built a few proof-of-concept environments, including (and of particular interest to me) building five at Portus, and Bodiam Castle.

Once I was comfortable manipulating my avatar, Ken replaced the game-world we were in, and loaded Portus on the server. Joe and Ken got a model of building five from my colleagues at Southampton, and put it on a model of the Trajanic basin. Walking through it (or rather directing my avatar while we talked) I was immediately impressed by the sense of scale, if not by the somewhat oppressive sky texture they chose.  We talked about how, with enough server space, you could invite a lecture group to the model, and talk about the research and interpretation behind it while leading a group of avatars around it.

Here’s a video walkthrough Joe made previously:

Of course I was thinking about the Portus MOOC – but immediately I could think of challenges. For a start the environment sits on a sort of commercial virtual world server run by US telecoms company Avaya.  Joe explained they had a very reasonable price-plan, for smaller meetings. But even though in theory 2000 people could visit at once, Joe said the server fees would be prohibitively expensive. On top of that of course, MOOCs are inherently asynchronous, so without huge amounts of planning, many people would miss out, and possibly feel deprived. But regardless I asked whether the lecturer could change the appearance of the models as s/he  discussed the various theories behind them. After a bit of thought Joe said, although the models themselves couldn’t change on the fly, they could build a sort of “TARDIS” (yay, Doctor Who back tomorrow) that could transport the group between a number of models, or (obviously) through time to show different stages of Portus’ development.

Then we went to Bodiam, and arrived in the courtyard of a Bodiam Castle far less ruined than the one I know. Joe explained that they had a model of the Great (dining) Hall, created by a PhD student, and were thinking about how to build a simple model of the Castle around it, when the found exactly the model they were looking for on-line, available for £50. So that’s what we explored, but the only detailed interior was the Great Hall.

I must admit, though the smoothness of the experience was a lot more accessible than, say, Second Life (though maybe that’s because of the speed of my Broadband) I can’t think of a sustainable business model for environments like this. Build it and (maybe) they will come, but beyond these experiments, where is the reward for building it? Will visitors pay to visit a virtual Bodiam, or would they prefer to go to the real thing? Would my organisation (the National Trust) pay to have a virtual Bodiam accurately modelled? Who for?

Millions  of people (probably) have paid to tour a virtual medieval Florence in Assassins’ Creed, but they came mostly for the killing and the treasure – Florence itself was a pleasant extra.

I DO think virtual environments like this could benefit things like the Portus MOOC, but MOOCs ain’t cash cows… and Second Life lies in (relative) ruins, as do many other Virtual world platforms.

This one is free to visit though, and Ken and Joe have agreed to leave Portus on it for a while. Make sure Flash is up to date and click on this link to visit. You’ll need to download an Avaya extension, but its a painless process. If you see anyone there, wave by pressing the 1 key on your keyboard, and if you have a microphone attached, talk to them.

Changing direction?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around my participation in the Portus MOOC a few weeks back. This post is an attempt to get my thoughts in order, so I apologise in advance for any disjointedness.

First of all, let me edit in some thoughts on locatative gaming, prompted by a Guardian article on social gaming I read today while I should have been bashing this post into shape. Describing the new game from Bungie, Destiny (which is of course a console game, not a location based one) she says

On a practical level, though, “social” is a business model. It means content engineered to be “liked” or shared. It means fundamentally we spend anxious time doing free labour for social infrastructures, providing our personal lives, disseminating links, making those platform-holders wealthy with our exhibitionism and interaction. When it comes to games, it’s increasingly on the player to create the meaning in their experience.

And passionate players provide unpaid labor to games development, too: games are being released in beta and updated in public, so that the end product will better meet their needs. Thus the eager front-line beta testers mitigate the expensive risk of developing a commercial tech product, just through the fuel of their social behavior.


It is social in that business sense: you must collaborate with and keep up with your friends, ensure that your statistics and equipment – your fitness for competition – are ever increasing. You participate excitedly in this capitalistic metaphor.

Having “played” Ingress for a couple of weeks now, I’m beginning to feel the same frustrations as the author. I simple don’t have the time and dedication to labour on behalf of Google and for the benefit of my fellow players. I know what I ought to do to have an enjoyable experience is recruit freinds and family into the game so that we can play as a team, or build relationships with other players to do the same. But its too much bother. Its not for my generation, I’ve concluded.

In the Guardian, Leigh Alexander concludes:

I believe in the potential for games to create incredible collaborative environments for play. But let’s think about what a “social” play experience would look like if it served us, the users, and not the platform, whose only real desire is to have us use it, to have us serve and propagate it, to lend hours of our time to its cold lunar ecosystem.

What would a locatative game look like, that served the users rather than the platform? We’ll have to wait and see.

Right now though, I’ve been thinking about how the Portus MOOC might better serve its users. I’ve been looking at all the comments that were posted by students on the MOOC, and though I’ve not yet done any proper text analysis, my impression is that the Portus team received great praise from participants, but there are two apparent challenges for web-based learning:

  • Spatial and contextual awareness. Comments from participants consistently highlight the difficulty of understanding the spaces involved, their relationship to each other, and their scale. Efforts to understand spaces were further undermined by the struggle to understand the context as the topography and use of space changed during the 500 year period of occupation. Copious maps, plans, 360/spherical panorama and references to GoogleEarth and Bing Maps failed adequately to mitigate this challenge.
  • A preference for didactic learning over investigation. Though many participants relished the more autodidactic optional activities, a considerable number expressed discomfort when faced with interpretation tasks where users generated their own content. Peer review was especially daunting.

My supervisor, Graeme Earl already addressed the first point in his post on the Portus MOOC blog. Therein he says:

Some of you have already used ingenious methods, such as pacing out the size of a canal on your driveway or finding household objects similar to those we find at Portus. This is fabulous and please keep sharing these ideas – it is really helpful for us and for other learners.

But what do we do if we want to immerse you in the site as it is today, and as it was in the past? I would like you to imagine the buildings towering above you, to feel as though you are walking the streets and avenues in the footsteps of the Roman sailors, warehouse workers, slaves and traders that walked there two thousand years ago. You did this in textual form fantastically already in theFirst Century discussion in week one and in the Summary of the Week in week five, and it would be great if you continued to produce image or audio versions and share them on the Flickr group pool.

We’ve been thinking about how, for the next run of the Portus MOOC, we might lift our model of Portus off the page, take it out of the tiny window of the average computer monitor.

Imagine this.

Armed with a smartphone (loaded with a simple app that we create), one of our MOOC participants takes a walk, where-ever they live, and finds a piece of ground of a reasonable size, a park perhaps, or a school playing field, or a parking lot even. As long as it’s reasonably clear of obstructions it should be fine. They walk around the field pacing out as large a rectangle as they can, using the smart-phone’s GPS function to define and log each of the four corners. The app (or maybe its an HTML5 webapp, so they (and we) don’t have to worry about app-stores) tells them how the area they’ve measured out compares to the area of the Portus site.

Then (and here is the clever bit) the app scales everything we know about the real Portus to the area they’ve described. Using the app, and maybe some physical markers of their own, they can locate the intersections of the streets, and the locations and sizes of buildings that we’ve excavated. The app would allow them to map the changes that took place over time too, so that could plan out Then they can walk those streets, and the app can help them visualise the building they are walking past, and how goods (and people) moved from one space to another on their journeys in and out of the Port.

When I say visualise, I bet you are thinking they hold their phone up and, looking through the screen, see 3D models that we’ve made of the buildings in AR. I guess it’s a possibility, but we’re beginning to push at the limits of the technology here: Smartphone GPS has been getting better, but most phones are likely to deliver something accurate only to between three meters and nine, and what with level changes on the site they are doing this, and at Portus, I fear that an AR presentation might end up with so many visual glitches that it becomes off-putting rather than insightful and inspiring.

So actually I’m thinking there is a better learning outcome by making them do it all in their heads. I like the idea of  learning that visualisation starts in the imagination, not at the 3D modelling interface. Grant Morrison, who wrote the challenging comic The Invisibles, coined the term Fictionsuit to describe a method by which an author interacts with the characters in his (or her) diegesis by becoming a character in the diegesis. In a way, this is what the MOOC asked students to do the “First century discussion” that Graeme referred to in his post. Some participants (according to the comments) were more comfortable than others with this exercise, but I’m convinced its a vital tool for interpreting archaeological evidence and learning about exploring a world that can, in a very literal sense, only be a creation of our collective imaginations.

In another way, game avatars are fictionsuits too. Whether they are created by authors of the game, like John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, customisable creations of the player as in Skyrim, or held entirely within the imagination of the player as in Dear Esther.

But there’s a dichotomy between the exercise of imagination, and the “truth” of an academic paper or computer model. And the evidence of the comments betrays, among participants on the MOOC, a preference for passive acceptance of an expert’s model over willingness to imagine a model of their own.

So I’m thinking about how we might use game mechanics to:

  • Immerse participants in the geo-spatial relationships of different parts of the site. Exploring it by moving from place to place on a map (or even a scale recreation of that map in a real-word space) to access different content.
  • Encourage the creation of fictionsuits to explore the possibilities of how the site might have worked
  • Share (and even evaluate) interpretations of the site and the evidence

That last, the sharing and evaluation of interpretation is a particular challenge, the game mechanic solution to which might be in some work I looked at yesterday. Without wanting to reveal too much about the project of a colleague I only just met, I was introduced to a team which is working of using game mechanics to create Linked Data for an enormous  corpus, and also evaluate learning. It strikes me that this methodology could be incredibly useful for MOOCs. Yes, it uses game-play to source un-paid labour, just like the social games that Leigh Alexander was berating in today’s Guardian, but it does offer the intrinsic reward of actual, real learning.

I’m still trying to synthesize all this into a coherent project, but I do think I’m getting somewhere.

Please do comment if this all feels like nonsense though.

Why Lego? #buildyourownportus

I wrote a post for the Day of Archaeology blog. Much of it summarises, and refers back to, recent posts here about the Portus MOOC and #buildyourownportus. But this bit is new:

But then I […] had to make a visit to the Vyne a week or two ago, and they currently have on display a large Lego model, based on all the archaeological evidence of what that place looked like in its Tudor prime.


Looking at this model. It dawned on me that there’s something very important archaeologically about using Lego (or any other construction toy, I’m not a Lego shill!) to visualise the past. Every model a archaeologist produces is an experiment, a theory. It follows that every model an archaeologist produces is wrong.  Of course the idea is that the more evidence an archaeologist applies to their model, the less wrong it is. But there is always missing evidence, always an element of conjecture.

But models can be very seductive, especially when they are presented by institutions like museums, the National Trust, or media like the BBC and National Geographic. Then they become authoritative, they are imbued with an illusion of rightness, of “that’s exactly how it was”, that would embarrass the archaeologist who produced it. Archaeologists would prefer to show a model in constant flux, shifting through all the “might have beens”, all the theories and conjecture that hasn’t yet been discounted.

Computer modelling is a double-edged blade (modelling knife?) in this regard. On the one hand, computer models allow archaeologists to efficiently try different versions of the model, but on the other hand, with ever more sophisticated textures and lighting effects, computer models can appear even more real.

But Lego comes with an inbuilt sense of “unrealness.” Inherent in a Lego model is the idea that you can break it to bits and rebuild it as your ideas change. There’s also a sense that everyone can do this. You don’t need to have a high-powered computer with multiple GPUs and expensive CAD software. You don’t even need the Lego. All you need is your imagination.

So on this Day of Archaeology, bring your own imagination to the table. Play around with ideas. If you can’t get to a dig, or help out with finds recording you can still contribute to our ever growing understanding of the past. Share your “might have beens” with each other, because the more might-have-beens we share, the closer we get “that’s how it was.”

Visualizing Portus #UoSFLPortus

Right, I think I might have reached the limits of Lego Digital Designer.

And I’m only about a third of the way through visualizing the Grandi Magazzini di Settimio Severo. I started with the excellent notes and drawings made by Grant Cox and Christina Triantafillou especially for as after a couple of us on the Portus MOOC started modelling building five. From that I created a Lego model of a single warehouse space – a guess a “Magazzino”. The drawings suggest that along one range, these were mostly of consistent shape and size, so having made one magazzino, it was quite easy to make two by stacking one on top of the other and then 22, by placing eleven stacks side my side. My fiddling with real Lego last earlier this week had prepared me with an idea about how I’d clip each unit to the next. Even with virtual Lego its important to make sure it all slots into space.

Then I created a staircase, which, according to the drawings, is a little narrower than a magazzino. THEN I created the entrance large tunnel, which on reflection, I think I should have incorporated into the construction of the staircase. But then that’s the beauty of modelling, trying it out helps you understand more about how it fits together.

Sometimes it also raises more questions while answering others. On Grant’s drawings, the front (courtyard) opening of the tunnel is depicted under and single arched opening for the upper story. But on the rear facade, the opening is depicted spanning two arches of the upper story. Is this an error? Given that Grant has been doing this stuff longer than me, I think not, but I’d love to have a look at the data upon which he based his drawings.

Anyway, though I’d like to work a bit more on that staircase/entrance arch conjunction, I’m ready to share where I’ve got to so far. And it might be as far as I’m able to go. LDD was getting very sticky as I attached the 22 magazzini to the staircase/arch model, and slow almost to to the point of unresponsive when I tried to put the other twenty units onto the other side of the arch. For the last few hours my poor computer has been trying to make a building guide, which would tell me how many real bricks I’d need, and also allow me to share the model, but its already fallen over once and started again. So I don’t hold out much hope!

Anyway, here are a few screen-grabs I made before I issued that fateful instruction.

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A Lego Magazzini #buildyourownportus

My post a couple of weeks back on the Portus MOOC, and trying to model Building Five in Lego aroused some visits from my fellow students, a few comments in the MOOC itself, and at least one other attempt to use Lego Digital Designer to as an archeological tool.

It so encouraged Graeme Earl that he wrote about it on Southampton’s MOOCs blog He also provides a link there to some plans and drawings of the Grandi Magazzini Di Settimio Severo that he persuaded Grant Cox (he of the astounding computer models) and Christina Triantafillou to create.

The challenge is evident. Can we, the MOOC’s students, rise to it and build our own models of this enormous building?

One could of course, use the drawings themselves as building blocks, reproducing them to the correct scale, sticking multiple copies to card, and assembling them with glue.

Or, of course, I could turn to Lego again.

This is another huge building. Bigger even than building five. In videos from Week one and week three of the MOOC, Simon Keay strides down the remains of the corridor as though it’s a street. (EDIT: or am I confusing that with the Portico di Claudio?) So in the end I’ll resort to digital designer again. But first let me get a feel for the shape by getting my hands around some real bricks.

Looking at the plans, it’s apparent that many of the storerooms are the same structure, repeated again and again across each wing and two floors. There are other spaces, stairwells etc that don’t conform to the pattern. But to begin with, I’m looking for a modular design for the storerooms.

First of all I lay out a simple version of the design on a baseboard:


Here, I’ve made a very unscientific decision about scale. After my attempt at building five, I’m less interested in building it to minifigure scale. I’m not sure even LDD has enough virtual bricks (!) and anyway I don’t want to place them all. So instead I’m experimenting with the smallest scale possible, and here I’ve decided I can get away with one stud = one meter. Of course the plans show varied decimal fractions of a meter in the metrics, so I’m rounding up and down arbitrarily. Romans – if you find this blog through some sort or temporal anomaly – do not scale up my Lego measurements. You’ll be very disappointed.


Even without the correct scale, the act of modelling makes one think about how the spaces go together, and really interrogate the plans. The picture above shows one of the arches which looked out over the Claudian Basin and the sea beyond. Now though I’m wondering – is it open to the floor? Or does it have a sill? For the time being I’m leaving it open to the floor.



Then there are decisions to make that aren’t about an absence of information, but rather the limitations of the Lego System. The plans show domed interior ceilings, almost like vaulted pillars in medieval cellars, but with Lego I can only have arches. So should I put them across the room, or down its length, because as the images above show, it could work both ways. In the end I decide to put them across the room, and fake the vaulting with some inverse roof tiles. Like so:


“Minifigure scale” is well known among adult fans of Lego, but there is a smaller scale, based on the pieces used in some of Lego’s board games such as Heroica. Sadly these “microfigures” are still too big to populate my building, so I resort to a minifigure film star’s Oscar statuette to give the building a sense of scale. Talking of which, I know the width of this interior doorway but the plans don’t show the height:


Finally, I want to get rid of the baseboard. Having got this far in plastic, and got an idea of the size of pieces I need, I’ll be moving onto virtual bricks. Then I’ll need to create repeatable module that clicks together, so I’m better off creating a “baseboard” that goes on top of the structure.



That’s enough for tonight. Next time, the virtual model.

The Portus MOOC and modelling

Shipshed render - Grant Cox -

Having been focussing on my Symposium presentation, and then taking a week camping with the family in France, I’ve finally caught up with the other students on the Portus MOOC, which I’d had a sneak preview of some months back. We’re two thirds of the way through the course, which is a bit late for catching up, but never mind. The debate in the user forums below each activity has been better than I’ve seen in any other MOOC I’ve tried – rather than simple requests for help with an issue, the Portus learners have been contributing their own knowledge and experience and asking probing questions which have elicited very full and illuminating replies from the Project team.

This week, the course has turned to two aspects of the Portus Project which are of particular interest: the mysteries of “building five” and computer modelling. Building five is a large building almost 250 metres long, and (according to evidence which I won’t repeat here – if you want to know, do the course)  it may have been a boatbuilder’s shed, although no evidence has been found as to how exactly ships built in the shed might have been launched. The course also explored the activity of modelling the building, showing how computer models are used to hypothesize the shape of there is missing evidence for.

There was some debate in the forum comments about the power of CGI models of convince the viewer that this might be the ONLY truth, while the Portus team are using CGI to explore all the possibilities. There is an argument that the more sketchy archaeological drawing is inherently less “final” and more pregnant with possibilities, but I’m not sure I’m convinced by that argument. But I am convinced that the act of modelling is more informative than the finished model, whether its created by computer or pen and ink.

So how easy would it be to give all the MOOC learners an opportunity to get their hands dirty with modelling? The sort of software used by the Portus team comes with expensive licenses and a steep learning curve, which likely put it out of the reach of most home learners. But there alternative 3D modelling packages. My colleague, Javier Pereda suggests two on-line 3D modelling programs that come with their own tutorials: Tinkercad – a Web based 3D system which is a simplified version of 123D from Autodesk; or 3D Tin – also Web based, and a little bit more complex, but with the difference that this app can export the models to other sites like Thingverse, and from there, maybe 3D print their models.

Could the Portus team create 3D models of some of the actual finds from Portus, standing remains, and the other evidence they’ve discovered about the shape of the buildings’ footprint, and enable their on-line students to start creating their own 3D models? I must admit I took a more playful route, which resonates with my recent reblog.

After a discussion about trying to build Portus in Lego minifigure scale, I quickly worked out that even my son doesn’t have enough bricks for that. So I turned to Lego Digital Designer (which I guess is a 3d modelling package – but, for me at least , one which a less steep learning curve), and after spending a day and a half (!) creating one corner of  Building Five to virtual minifigure scale, I’ve produced this:


Not as impressive as Grant Cox’s render at the top of the post. But I’ve also learned two things: that the engagement of playing with the evidence and the Lego System to try and model Portus is a valid educational activity; and, that minifigure scale definitely does use too many bricks.