Also available in:
Is talking about Virtual Heritage relevant in 2022 ? Back in 2004, very few were able to predict how the today’s most influent social network might evolve and completely change people’s perceptions of how they interact online. Later, in 2021, the same company will announce a new concept in the works, just as revolutionary. But this time with higher expectations as the company is no longer a group of unknown students as they were in 2004, but one of the largest companies in the world. If this new project succeeds, it is very possible that in 5 or 10 years we will live in a world infused with digital features that today we can hardly imagine as part of our daily lives.
In this post I won’t talk about Metaverse (yes, you probably figured it out I was talking about it earlier) nor about Web 3.0 and what big changes they could bring to the online environment. I will talk about what Virtual Heritage means, what it contains, the misconceptions about it, the right approaches and where is Romania, today, in regards with this multidisciplinary field.
Digital or Virtual ?
Before going further it is good to stay awhile and clear a terminology conundrum, similar with digitization vs digitalization discussion I started back in 2020. You must’ve met the terms digital archaeology and virtual archaeology or digital humanities. Are they the same thing? No. But in some of the contexts they are often used, are covering more or less the same issues.
Digital refers to information delivered in abstract formats as numbers. Virtual refers to a simulation or replication of something (a thing or a human activity) that is real or imagined. While virtual content is delivered in digital format, not all digital content is also virtual. Databases, statistics, numerical simulations are digital data, and is usually the focus of Digital Humanities. 3D digital content and its extended visual applications and byproducts are part of the Virtual. Also in the Virtual realm are found all the replicated real-life activities like real-time meetings, 2D 360 panoramic tours, discussions etc.
What is Virtual Heritage ?
In order to define Virtual Heritage we can look at Archaeology. In Archaeology, and pretty much everywhere else, 3D digital content is generically named “virtual”. It is part of a well-established field, Virtual Archaeology, a field directly dependent on the Archaeology larger scientific discipline. The term was first used by Paul Reilly in 1990, to define a combination of Virtual Reality (computer simulations) and Archeology. He tried to find solutions to various important problems such as the unrepeatability of excavations. Through these efforts he wanted to find new ways to document, interpret and annotate archaeological discoveries and processes.
For years, the “virtual” in Virtual Archeology and Virtual Heritage has been viewed with skepticism by the scientific community. It was thought just a “niche” approach with very high costs and with limited utility for archaeology or cultural heritage. Even though the general perception has not changed much today, things are very different. The international scientific community has adopted the practices of Virtual Archeology, developed and refined them, greatly broadening their spectrum of applicability. An important role in the recent years has been played in this regard by the increased accessibility to new means of 3D recording and processing. All mainly due to the technological developments (accelerated) in the range of miniaturization of electronic devices and mathematical algorithms.
HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS AND GUIDES FOR VIRTUAL HERITAGE
The reality of increased use and production of digital / computerized content in the field of cultural heritage has generated and continues to generate several risks resulted from several problems that come with this “power”, among which a few can be mentioned:
- data duplication (same subject digitized by different parties with no connection between);
- recordings of poor, unusable, quality (in some cases, unique elements of heritage that are lost today);
- loss or obsolescence (unusable) of digital data (old digital formats that have no been converted to more recent ones).
These issues have been recognized and discussed back in the 2003 UNESCO Charter for the Conservation of Digital Heritage. A set of principles for the computerized visualization of cultural heritage in the London Charter was developed in 2009. The theoretical framework established in the latter was the basis of one of the most important documents regarding Virtual Heritage, namely the Seville Principles of 2017. This document provides comprehensive definitions for terms such as Virtual Archaeology, Virtual Restoration, virtual reconstruction or virtual anastylosis. It also delivers practical guides based on principles that have their origins in the Venice Charter of 1964, for any type of project in the field of cultural heritage that involves new technologies of research, documentation, conservation or dissemination.
Below I will review some important definitions, which I think should be mentioned as often as possible in order to root the terms. I say this because the field of Virtual Heritage is by definition multidisciplinary but has its origins deeply rooted in concepts known from Restoration Theory. Concepts to which have access through professional training only a segment of those who are part of this field (when they are made part of it).
Another reason why I think it is good for these terms to be clarified is their apparent similarity which can lead to confusion and therefore their use in the wrong contexts.
Through Virtual Restoration (usually for objects), an object or building is brought back into a past form of existence, in digital format, using only existing fragments. This concept was proposed by Gianfranco Fiaccadori, in 1994, as a method to be able to intervene on the elements of damaged heritage, virtually. According to the Seville Principles, this is defined as “the use of a virtual model to reorganize existing material fragments to visually recreate something that existed in the past.”
This process might also include virtual anastylosis (anastylosis term has Greek origins and actually means piecing together original fragments in order to rebuild a ruined building or object). This process of stylistic intervention makes it possible to make proposals and visual hypotheses that would not otherwise have been possible in reality in contact with the physical fragments.
Through Virtual Reconstruction (mainly for buildings) the subject is brought back to an earlier form of existence using already existing materials and by making new elements by 3D modeling. This last aspect must be documented step by step and presented as such, in accordance with the principles of authenticity and scientific transparency set out in Seville. Failure to comply with these principles in the virtual reconstruction process leads (as is most often the case) to the occurrence of the black box phenomenon. In this unfortunate situation, the presented result is not accompanied by the necessary steps to repeat. In most such cases, the original source is no longer distinguishable from the added and hypothetical elements.
Another very important aspect in everything related to virtual heritage is the contextualization of the presented subjects. This element can make the difference and emphasize the importance and benefits of combining virtual and real heritage. It’s the Virtual Recreation. This term refers to the use of a virtual model to visually recreate an archaeological site at a certain point in the past including material culture (movable and immovable heritage), environment, landscape, traditions and cultural symbolism.
In both cases of recreation and virtual reconstruction, where new virtual elements are included, with no physical correspondent at present, it is mandatory to use color codes for the degree of documentation to achieve those elements. For example, the color legend in such representations should contain color codes for both highly documented, multi-source, and poorly documented items with a predominantly hypothetical percentage, as well as for fully hypothetical items. This ensures scientific transparency but also the essential steps of repeatability in reconstruction.
In the aforementioned aspect, a necessary step is to avoid to take out of context and to simplify the tools specific to virtual heritage as tools only for “viewing mode”. Virtual reconstructions must be part of a virtual ecosystem dedicated not only to the general public but also to the audience of experts in the field. For the latter, the virtual environment in general can allow the analysis and study of an object (or surfaces) with the details of the topology, its state of conservation or to simulate a virtual restoration as accurate as possible.
In this sense, it is necessary to have a 3D digital model with high resolution and precision, together with all the available types of information accurately mapped and connected with the geometry of the subject. A connection between the 3D model and a database can be useful for experts to search, catalog and view information directly to the level of the 3D model. Also, information related to building materials, working technique, and several types of textures can be associated with different areas of the surface of the 3D model for mapping and comparing elements related to the state of conservation (eg imaging or spectroscopic characterization).
Virtual Heritage in Romania of 2022
In Romania, in terms of virtual heritage, things are focused on 3D digitization activities for the most part. These activities are accelerated especially in recent years. Even though museums do not currently have dedicated 3D digitization centers or departments, today’s technological solutions have made it possible for most people to start digitizing collections or monuments on their own, most operators being self-taught (from museum staff). There are also private companies that offer essential 3D digitization services and related deliverables that sometimes collaborate or intersect in various projects with cultural operators, but the cases are not numerous. Services are expensive and museum budgets are limited.
Growing but with risky practices
If in the area of 3D digitization things are evolving, in the part of storing and sharing virtual content to the public or the expert environment, unfortunately, things stagnate. The contextualized online repositories of the digitized elements as well as the web media for presenting the narratives of the subjects and their cultural-historical contexts are missing in this direction. The only method generally adopted in the Romanian space, for the storage and security of 3D content, is the use of an external commercial platform (a risky practice in many ways).
Even so, 3D models are published with minimal metadata descriptors and in most cases even completely devoid of descriptive information. About paradata (descriptors specific to the method of 3D data recording), one of the criteria insisted on in the international community for transparency and repeatability, no one mentions anything in the description of published 3D models. The distribution of these models, from the external commercial platform, to the public is done only through a social network.
Because there are no regulations, everyone does as they can or as they want to. Not many topics are reported in the direction of virtual reconstructions or restorations (except for the 2D illustration area where we already have internationally renowned exponents), mostly isolated experiments on various case studies, which are then not popularized.
To conclude, with a good methodology, which takes into account the criteria of authenticity, transparency and reliability but also the requirements of the target audience, virtual tools can bring great help to experts for analysis, interpretation and proposal of different hypotheses but also for realization of simulations.
The Real and the Virtual, taken together, can greatly expand the cultural and human experience. As we see around us, in everyday life, these two elements already merge in all directions. In the field of Heritage, this synergy transforms the person (visitor or expert) from a simple observer into an active participant, in the main role. Narrative tools based on virtual environments will become a new way of interacting (most likely a new standard) with the digitized, modeled or simulated elements of heritage, offering a unique perspective with virtually unlimited possibilities for expanding knowledge. This type of approach is not limited only in the field of cultural heritage, here maybe it is only in its infancy.
In the media it is already used as a narrative mode, the best example being the research department of the New York Times which has already published some excellent materials using web technology, photogrammetry and 3D modeling thus generating immersive experiences impossible to replicate in the real world. The impending digital revolution in the way we interact with the online environment, in terms of virtual heritage, seems to be moving us more and more towards such approaches. The work is just beginning.