Trapped in the bunker

The debrief session after the experience. Photo taken by Adam.

Last weekend at Geek 2017, I played Sarcophagus, a Nordic LARP (Live Action Roleplay). LARP, as we know it today, grew out of the international popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. It didn’t take long, in the late seventies and early eighties, for people to start making costumes out of blankets and swords out of camping mats and gaffer tape, to take the game away from the table and into the real world. Indeed, I played in one of the first commercial LARPs, Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle.

People still do that of course, and the weapons have become better made, safer and more “realistic” in their design (with in the spiky aesthetic of fantasy illustration). LARP is not limited to high fantasy genres either. In the nineties there was an explosion of gothic LARP in the US, with people playing communities of Vampires. Any world can be recreated in LARP form, even the real one.

The popularity of LARPing in Scandinavia, led to style/variant with its own name, Nordic Larp (note, in this form, Larp has become a word in its own right, no longer an acronym). This style has gained an international reputation for attempting something more than recreating fantasy adventures, exploring its possibilities as an art form in its own right. Similarly, the form often eschews external, procedural adventures in favour of exploring internal, emotional struggles.

Thus it was that I, and a dozen or so other players (though we’ll return to the ideas of games and players shortly), signed up to a five hour experience that would involve us being locked up in a nuclear bunker with no hope of escape. The players ranged from Larp virgins to experienced Larpers from Belarus, a Canadian musician, lecturers and students. (Three of us are doing PhDs.) We weren’t in that bunker the whole five hours though, and given that I’m writing this, you’ll understand we were let out. But this isn’t like an Escape room game, where we have limited time to solve the puzzles and find a way out, neither is any of us expected to win by becoming the king of a post-apocalyptic society. (Though, as we’ll see, my character might have thought so.) In fact its arguably not a game at all. Our facilitator, artist Adam James, kept correcting himself when he used the word game, explaining that his Larping mentor disapproved of it. So we are not players in a game, but rather players in an improvised drama, and not just the players but the audience as well. Indeed, Adam defined larp as an artform where the participants and the audience are one and the same. (Which is something Robin Laws used to say about tabletop roleplaying games, though he’s had to drop that definition as the streaming of such games on Twitch and YouTube has become more and more popular.)

The object of Sarcophagus is not to escape or win, but to explore the five stages of grief, as modeled by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. First all though we had to work out who we were.

The preparation took a couple of hours in itself, with Adam explaining Larp, running us through some improvisation exercises and helping us create a character for ourselves. To begin with, he littered the briefing room with pictures, some large (A3) some small. Some abstract, some figurative, some photographs, some drawings. Adam encouraged us to walk among them, pick them up, and see if any of them inspired thoughts about who we might be.

I latched upon a couple, a medieval drawing of a ploughman and a dead bird which may have been trussed into some sort of totem, and imagined the pastural post-apocalyptic fantasies of my youth, things like John Christopher’s Tripods and Sword of the Spirits trilogies, the seventies BBC series Survivors, and Riddley Walker (which is set very close to where we were playing). What about a character who’d actually looked forward to the end of the world, I thought, a character who’d foolishly imagined a clearing away of everything what was wrong with the world, and a return to simpler, purer times. Of course he would be disappointed, Adam had made it clear that we’d know we wouldn’t even survive long enough to see the nuclear winter, let alone a new Garden of Eden.

Talking about it with other players, I imagined that my character might be rather reactionary, not necessarily well liked. Then Adam passed around a “hat” with little slips of paper listing the jobs we might have had before we found ourselves in the bunker. We found out we were hairdressers, waiters, sailors, stockbrokers and gym teachers. I pulled out “politician” and everything fell into place. I didn’t once mention the word UKIP once, indeed I painted myself as someone who, like Churchill, had moved between parties, but everyone knew exactly what sort of politician I had been. We also got to pick a flaw out of the hat. I ended up an alcoholic, though frankly I felt politician was enough of a flaw.

Then we split into two groups. One of people that wanted close connections with other player’s characters (for example, sisters), and a slightly smaller group who preferred thinner, looser connections. I went with the second, thinking many will have seen my politician on television, but few would know me well. We workshopped our connections, the gym teacher had taught my children, the security guard was someone I ignored on the way into the gated community to lived in, neighbour to the stockbroker, and the waiter was the rebellious son of wealthy donors to my political campaign.

Some more improvisation followed, this time walking as our characters, in different situations. Then after a break, and some meditation on what the world would be like if we died today, we met up outside the Bunker for one last improvisation workshop before going into (in this case) as reconstruction of a WWII Anderson shelter. Adam asked us to find a position to start then read out a short introduction:

11:27—Radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted by breaking news. Brussels and Copenhagen have been hit by large explosions.

11:31—Unconfirmed sources report that the blasts may be nuclear explosions.

11:33—Similar explosions are reported in Paris, Stockholm and Dublin.

11:37—A black helicopter lands on the roof of the prime minister’s office in Oslo London.

11:38—Associated Press confirms that Copenhagen has been hit by a nuclear explosion.

11:40—The air alarm goes off in London. Most people haven’t heard the news and just think it is an exercise. A few run to the shelters.

11:41—TV and radio transmissions are jammed.

And we begin. I won’t go too much into what happened, every version is different. Suffice to say, my politician tried to build a power-base in within the group, before properly realising the hopelessness of the situation, and even then trying to get people to like him – I’d managed to keep my bottle of booze (creme soda) secret until, hopeless, I shared what was left to curry favour. The only scripted moments were that introduction above, the lights going out in three phases before ending in darkness, and one event that one of the players is previously given guidance on timing. Note the importance even in this mostly improvised story, of having kernels – events that happen in order, even if its only the lights failing and the (spoilers!) event.

Afterwards there was a (vital) debrief session, almost a decompression chamber. We had time to get happy again, and use to the light of day and discussed how our story developed. Adam observed that we hadn’t quite entered the depression stage when he had to bring it to its conclusion, and I thought we hadn’t quite had time. I felt my character had been bargaining to the last, and was teetering on the brink of depression when Adam came through with the torch and rounded us up. I was about to say something to that effect when Adam let slip that we were meant to spend four hours, not two in the bunker.

Due to constraints of the day, we always knew we were only going to have two hours, but I would have liked to have played the longer stint if it were possible. And of course it is! If I get to play again, it will be a totally different experience. I won’t be a politician again, maybe I’ll be a historian, or hairdresser, and the stor(ies) will be, even if the lights still go out and “the event” happens as before.

I even thought about playing it in the bunker that the National Trust owns, on Orford Ness. Now, that would be cool.

Resonance: Sound, music and emotion in historic house interpretation

Just drafted an abstract for my Sound Heritage presentation:

This presentation explores what computer games can teach us about emotional engagement in cultural heritage interpretation. Beginning with a model of emotional affect drawn from the work of Panksepp and Biven (Panksepp, 2012), Lazarro (Lazarro, 2009), Sylvester (Sylvester, 2013)and Hamari et al (Hamari et al., 2014), it reveals how music especially has become a versatile emotional trigger in game design.

Drawing on the work of Cohen (Cohen, 1998)and Collins (Collins, 2008)eight functions that music has in games:

Masking – Just as music was played in the first movie theaters, partly to mask the sound of the projector, so music in new media can be used to mask the whir of the console’s or PC’s fan.

Provision of continuity – A break in the music can signal a change in the narrative, or continuous music signals the continuation of the current theme.”

Direction of attention – patterns in the music can correlate to patterns in the visuals, directing the attention of the user.

Mood induction; and,
Communication of Meaning- the nice distinction here is between music that makes the user sad, and music that tells the user “this is a sad event” without necessarily changing the user’s mood.

A cue for memory – The power of the music to invoke memories or prepare the mind for a type of cognitive activity is well recognized in advertising and sonic brands such as those created for Intel and Nokia.

Arousal and focal attention – With the user’s brain stimulated by music s/he is more able to concentrate on the diagesis of the presentation.

Aesthetics – The presentation argues that all too often music is used for aesthetic value only in museums and heritage sites, even if the pieces of music used are connected historically with the site or collection.

As an example, the presentation describes a project to improve the way music is used in the chapel at the Vyne, near Basingstoke. Currently, a portable CD player is used to fill the silence with a recording of a cathedral choir, pretty, but inappropriate for the space and for it’s story. A new recording is being made to recreate about half an hour of a pre-reformation Lady Mass, with choisters, organ and officers of the church, to be delivered via multiple speakers, which will be even more pretty but also a better tool for telling the place’s story.

With a proposed experiment at Chawton House as an example, we briefly explore narrative structure, extending the concept of story  Kernels and Satellites described by Shires and Cohan (Shires and Cohan, 1988)to imagine the cultural heritage site as a collection of narrative atoms, or Natoms (Hargood, 2012), both physical (spaces, collection) and ephemeral (text, video, music etc.). Music, the presentation concludes is often considered as a “mere” satellite, but with thought and careful design there is no reason why music can not also become the narrative kernals of interpretation.

 

COHEN, A. J. 1998. The Functions of Music in Multimedia: A Cognitive Approach. Fifth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Seoul, Korea: Western Music Research Institute, Seoul National University.

COLLINS, K. 2008. An Introduction to the Participatory and Non-Linear Aspects of Video Games Audio. In: RICHARDSON, J. A. H., S. (ed.) Essays on Sound and Vision. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.

HAMARI, J., KOIVISTO, J. & SARSA, H. Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification.  System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on, 6-9 Jan. 2014 2014. 3025-3034.

HARGOOD, C., JEWELL, M.O. AND MILLARD, D.E. 2012. The Narrative Braid: A Model for Tackling The Narrative Paradox in Adaptive Documentaries. NHT12@HT12. Milwaukee.

LAZARRO, N. 2009. Understand Emotions. In: BATEMAN, C. (ed.) Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Towards Creating Better Videogames. Boston MA: Course Technology / Cangage Learning.

PANKSEPP, J. A. B., L. 2012. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions, New York, W. W. Norton & Company.

SHIRES, L. M. & COHAN, S. 1988. Telling Stories : A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, Florence, KY, USA, Routledge.

SYLVESTER, T. 2013. Designing Games – A Guide to Engineering Experiences, Sebastolpol, CA, O’Reilly Media.

Petworth Park and Pokemon too

Yesterday’s post was timely, it turns out, because today, Pokemon Go was released in the wild. I downloaded it and caught my first two Pokemon in the Great Hall at Chawton, waiting for a meeting that I’ll write more about tomorrow. But after that meeting I was off down to Petworth to have a go with the new(ish) Park Explorer.


The Park Explorer is one of the outputs of a three year long archeology project, exploring what’s under the Capability Brown landscape that survives today. I have some responsibility for the way it works. When my colleague Tom explained his plan to build a mobile application, I dissuaded him. There is little evidence that many people  download apps in advance of their visit to Heritage sites. And even fewer wish to deplete their data allowance on the mobile network to download it on site.

Together, we came up with an alternative – using solar powered Info-points to create wifi hotspots around the park that could deliver media to any phone capable of logging on to wifi, and browsing the web. Though in this case it’s not the World Wide Web, but a series of basic webpages offering maps, AV, etc. We’re running this installation as a bit of an experiment to gauge demand, to see, if it’s offered, how many people actually log on.

Pokemon Go demonstrated why the technology might be useful. With the app newly downloaded on my phone I, of course, wanted to try it out in Petworth’s pleasure grounds. I’d guessed right, the garden’s Ionic Rotunda and Doric Temple are both Pokestops.  But the wireless signal is so weak and patchy (on O2 at least) that the game could hardly log on, let alone do anything when I got within range. After a frustrating few minutes I gave up and returned to the local wifi.

That crummy phone signal is one of the reasons we went to solar powered local wifi. Once I logged on I was soon listening to the voice of my colleague Tom as he explained some of the archeology of the garden, watching an animated film of the development of the park and scrubbing away a photo of the current three person gardening team and their power tools to reveal a black and white photo of the small  army of gardeners that used to work here.

All of this was very good. But there are some issues that I think need to be addressed if the idea is to catch on. First of all, finding the wifi signal and logging on isn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped. Your browser need to be pointed at 10.0.0.1 to find the home page. The home page design leaves something to be desired. The floating button to change text size seems an afterthought that annoyingly obscures the text its trying to clarify. Navigation isn’t intuitive (no obvious way forward from the welcome splash pictured above, for example) or that well organised – I’d hoped that I’d be offered media that was closest to my position (as identified by the hotspot I was logged into), but the browse button just led to a list of things. Switching to the map view was easier, but it showed the design lacked a degree of responsiveness – see below how the word “Map” is partially obscured by the tile with the actual map on. The pins that link to different media suggest that its good to be standing in particular places to view that media, but on the few that I tried around the pleasure grounds, there seemed to be no discernible benefit to being in the right spot. In the end I settled under a spreading Oak to sit and work my way through what was on offer.

One feature that worked well to compare old and new and see change over the centuries was the scrub away photo feature. Even here though there was a fault in the responsiveness of the design. If I turned the phone into landscape mode, the picture became full screen and I lost the ability to reset it.

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I imagined how good it would be, if it looked and felt (and responded) like the National Trust’s current website. Maybe, with a bit of work, it can.

More work would be and investment though, so, first of all though we need to interrogate the system’s solar powered servers, and see how many people are giving it a try.

Heritage Jam 2015 – sign up soon!

Heritage Jam at York University – registration opens on 20th August

I had a great Skype chat today with Neil and Paul from Info-Point. I’d first met them a couple of years back, and wrote about their product here. In fact, I’d put them in touch with one of my client properties at the time, Saddlescombe Farm, that had a problem which I thought Info-point might be the perfect solution for. It was – and Info-point have now supplied solutions to a number of out-of-the-way (and out of signal) National Trust sites across the country.

Their challenge is that they are technologists, not storytellers, but sometimes places come to them hoping they can supply the content, not just the platform. To this end, they are working hard at building a network of interpretation designers and content providers, who they hope will use their technology when heritage sites come calling.

We were chatting idly about setting up a two-day “hacking” event, to bring together heritage custodians, storytellers and technologists. While we were talking I thought “we could call it something like Heritage Jam!”

Afterwards I thought – “Heritage Jam… that too good an idea to be mine. Where have I heard it before?” and a quick Google later, I knew where. York University will be hosting Heritage Jam towards the end of September. I missed it last year, and made a mental not not to miss it this year. OK, so that mental note came back a bit garbled, but it came back in time for me to get myself on the mailing list. Registration opens and closes on the 20th August. So if you want to go, set a reminder in your diary! If you can’t get to York, there’s and on-line participation month kicking on the 20th of August too, so check that out.

Lauren Child at Mottisfont

Last week, I took my family to the opening night of The Art of Lauren Child: Adventures with Charlie and Lola and Friends. It’s the first time this author/illustrator, who stormed to the top of the picture book charts while my first child was in her infancy, has shared the original artwork behind her creations. Most of the pieces are from  her collection – she doesn’t sell her originals artwork. She is so established in the psyche of the modern child, what with Charlie and Lola on the TV and her books owned by children of every age (and quite a few adults), that its hard to believe she only published her first book (about Clarice Bean) seventeen years ago. The collection on display shows the variety of techniques she uses to create her illustrations, and hints at the iteration that each page goes through before it is committed to print.

Now, obviously You might want to see an example of Child’s work illustrating this post. But you are not going to get that. Instead you are going to get a picture of a label. These are brilliant labels. How brilliant? Well my ten year old isn’t as much of fan of Lauren Child as his sister or his Mum. He didn’t really want to be there. But half-way round the gallery, he told his Mum how interesting the labels were. And he was right. My extremely creative colleague, Louise, who curated the exhibition, carefully chose as much as she could of Child’s own writing about her work. And Child, being an author of children’s books, writes very engagingly, and accessibly for children.

   
 These labels are informative, funny, easy to read but never patronising, and I don’t think I’ve voluntarily read such a high proportion of labels in any other exhibition. Together they give readers insights into technique, biography, and the stories behind the stories.

Child also contributed some new captions for the gaps in the story the Louise was trying to tell. Given that my last couple of posts have been about the layout of exhibitions, its worth complimenting Louise and her colleagues on that as well. They deal with the historical Y shaped gallery layout very well, broadly following a chronological track: the first room deals with Child’s first published works – Clarice Bean. Charlie and Lola come next, with more more recent works divided between traditional two dimensional illustration (mostly from Who wants to be a Poodle? I don’t) and three-dimensional media work, including some of the sets and photos from her version of The Princess and the Pea

And the original glass of Pink Milk!

All in all a MUST SEE. Click on the link at the top for details. 

 

Magna Carta 800th Anniversary

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I spent Monday at Runnymede, on the 800th Anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on that meadow. (Though personally, I like to think that it took place just the other side of the river in the Priory that used to sit beside the Ankerwick Yew.) Four thousand people came to celebrate the anniversary, including the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course the Queen (for one moment I was this far away from her!). I was there as part of the army of volunteers who helped run the event.

My role was part of the team of interpreters there to introduce people to the new artwork which has been commissioned by Surrey County Council and the National Trust to mark the anniversary. There’s a lot more about the piece, called The Jurors, at the end of this link. Its a great piece, by Hew Locke – twelve bronze chairs in the middle of the meadow. It proved a big hit with the crowds, who lost no time in sitting down on the chairs, and making connections between the stories the chairs told and their own lives.

Each chair is decorated with two reliefs, and I’ve chosen just a few of my favourites for the slideshow at the top of the post. Most of these photos were taken a few days before the event, when we volunteer interpreters got our first look at the piece, and they were taken more as a reminder as I revised some of the stories each relief reveals, so forgive the less than artistic photographs. There’s  a lot more details on the stories in the link above, as well as a personal audio guided tour from Hew himself, and, from that site, this is a great YouTube video of how Hew was inspired by the site and how it was made:

Everybody loved The Jurors, and I’ve heard reports from the team at Runnymede that it has attracted little crowds every day since the event. In fact they’ve asked us interpreters to return on a few predicated busy days to help interpret the piece. I think I might, once I’ve checked my diary. It was such a pleasure to work with.

Finally let me close with my picture of the Red Arrows flypast. I only took it on my phone, so its not a brilliant image of the Arrows themselves, but there’s something about the sky that I like.

Clandon Park


I was going to write about yesterday’s visit to the Museums and Heritage Show, but when I got home from London I’d heard the terrible news of the fire at Clandon Park.

The place is special to me for two reasons. Not only is it one of the places I work with (I was there only Monday making exciting plans for the future), but also, in 1999 before I ever dreamed of working for the National Trust, it was where I got married.

So I’m not writing with my National Trust hat on. I have not been involved with the salvage operation, and I only know as much as has been on the news. I’m writing as a punter who loves the place.

And not just the place, but the collection. So indulge me for a moment, and let me share some of my favourite objects from Clandon. I fear few of these will have been a priority for salvagers,  but I hope some of them may have survived.

http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/new_museum/20th_century_room/Case5/The_Football.shtml

Clandon was host to the Surrey Infantry Museum, guardians of collections from The Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Queen’s Regiment. Amongst all the medal banners and silverware was this old modest football. At first glance you might think is a relic of on those legendary Christmas football matches, but in fact this ball was dribbled across no-mans land ahead of a charge upon the trenches of the Prussian Guard.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/clandon-park/visitor-information/article-1355889655366/

Clandon Park was one of the first country house hospitals opened in the first months of the First World War. The soldiers who were treated there filled a couple of autograph books with sketches during their recuperation. To commemorate the centenary, we created an installation in the room that had, at that time, become the operating theatre, and displayed those original books and reproductions of some of the sketches.

For the duration of that exhibition, the contents of the room were moved into storage. There are two items which used to be on dis play there that are possibly my very favourite pieces:

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1441352.2

Huia, Wlliam (4th Earl) Onslow’s youngest son, was born in New Zealand in 1890, and at the bottom of this frame is a tiny picture of him as a baby, lying an a Maori feather cloak,

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1441244.1

and this is that cloak. As I said I have no idea of their fate, but news of the loss of these two objects more than any other treasures from Clandon, will upset me the most. I’m almost welling up, just thinking about it.

Finally, an object that always made me smile:

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1440368

From the Gubbay collection, a Staffordshire piece inspired by Chinese art. I hope it survives to make me smile again.

A virtual bath

Yesterday I had an interesting visit to Kings College London, to attend a workshop in the fascinating space of the university’s Anatomy Museum. I wanted to lie on the floor below the massive skylight, in the position where once a cadaver on a table would have been, while students watched the opening of the body from the mezzanine that extended along three sides. But that’s not what you do, when you are meeting people for the first time, so I sipped my coffee and shook hands instead.

We were there to discuss a neighbor of Kings College on the Strand, surely one of the least known National Trust places in the country. The Roman Bath on Strand Lane is open only by appointment on Wednesday afternoon, but thousands of people must pass every day, hardly glimpsing the signs of its presence. Kings has put a little bit of money into exploring how better access to this (and other) hidden heritage might be achieved digitally.

Martin Blazeby kicked proceedings off by sharing a computer model of the space. Then Alex Butterworth who’s done a bunch of digital storytelling, and Valeria Vitale spoke about two similar (and indeed interrelated during research) concepts The Idea of Water, and A Web of Unexpected Connections. On the two, The Idea of Water most excited me – I could imagine it being installed inside the Roman Bath (which if you want you can peer at through a window when its closed) silently projecting the content (a bubbling source of quotes about water, in essence) on darkened walls controlled somehow by the people doing the peering, or by other virtual visitors in the comfort of their own home, or for than matter, by people walking across Waterloo Bridge…

In between those two concepts Marcia Balisciano of Benjamin Franklin House, shared the frustration of some her her visitors at finding the spaces (mostly) empty and unfurnished, and we knocked about a few ideas around using digital technology to give those visitors a little of what they wanted, while preserving the interpretive philosophy behind the house itself.

#GoogleGlass for learning: The National Trust experience

A colleague pointed out this post to me, wherein a Google Glass owner tries a visit to Blickling. Of course he was stymied by a lack of a phone signal – which is common across many of our properties, and by a lack of wifi. Putting public wifi into National Trust buildings, to ensure decent connectivity despite thick stone walls in some places (not at Blickling), and then connecting to a network with enough capacity for tens or hundreds of visitors at a time to have responsive access to the web is a challenge for many, or most National Trust places. But it will become more and more urgent as visitors will expect to learn about places in ways that suit them.

Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

Whilst i enjoy the history, the cream tea is an essential part of the experience. Whether you go jam first, layering your cream on top, or cream first (which, just to be clear, is wrong), there’s nothing quite like sitting in a National Trust cafe, fending off the wasps, to let you know that summer is well and truly here.

Blickling Hall

The National Trust is a charity, set up to preserve landscapes and houses of national importance: originally focused on grand, stately homes, now equally likely to preserve the more humble abodes of writers and musicians. As a member, you can enjoy access to hundreds of properties around the UK, assured of a firmly middle class experience and a nice cup of tea at the end of it. I’m a huge fan.

But it was with some trepidation that, having taken delivery of my GoogleGlass a scant four days earlier, i…

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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.