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5. Discussion and Conclusions

This article has described 3D visualisation platforms designed and implemented within the archaeology and heritage fields (Table 3). The case studies described above show the capabilities inherent to these immersive visualisation systems when applied to cultural heritage. The virtual space can be populated by avatars (the users' virtual alter ego), characters with pre-recorded behaviours that simulate people from the past, and inanimate as well as animated objects (with pre-recorded information accessible through interactive hyperlinks). Interactions with the virtual world occur in different ways: real-life users can interact with objects and avatars in the virtual world using simply a mouse or a remote controller, or even their body (mid-air, gesture-based interaction). The virtual realm gives users the ability to compare multiple interpretations and different simulations of reality in the reproduced space. This process increases the number of interactions the user can have with virtual objects and virtual characters.

Table 3: List of applications cited in the article with information on application design, objectives and durability. Key: R (Research); P (Preservation); C (Communication); LS (Laser Scanning); Ph (Photogrammetry); IBM (Image-Based Modelling); I (Immersive); SI (Semi-Immersive); NI (Non-Immersive)
ApplicationDurationDisciplinesScope3D DataInfrastructureTeam membersNo. people
Western Han Dynasty Virtual Museum 2 years Archaeology/Computer Science R/P/C LS SI (Powerwall) archaeologists/computer scientists 7
Rhizome of Western Han 1 year Archaeology/Computer Science C LS SI (360-degree immersive panorama) archaeologists/computer scientists/heritage specialists 5
Tele-immersive Western Han 3 years Archaeology/Computer Science R LS I (tele-immersive system) archaeologists/computer scientists 7
Virtual Museum of the Ancient Flaminia 3 years Archaeology/Computer Science C LS/Ph SI (multi-user environment) archaeologists/computer scientists/heritage specialists/architects 19
Livia's Villa Reloaded 6 months Archaeology/Computer Science C LS/Ph/IBM SI (gesture-based application) archaeologists/computer scientists/heritage specialists 4
3D Artefacts 2 years Archaeology/Computer Science/Cognitive Science R LS SI (Powerwall) archaeologists/computer scientists/cognitive scientists 4
ADS 3D Viewer 2 years Archaeology/Computer Science R/P/C LS/IBM NI (3D Web) archaeologists/computer scientists/digital archivists/managers 7

Considering the complexity of these platforms, it is clear how cross-disciplinary efforts are essential to their efficient design and development. In fact, the combination of hybrid profiles, such as archaeologist/3D modeller, digital archivist/archaeologist, computer scientist/archaeologist, and manager/archaeologist, was crucial for the success of all the projects presented above. These hybrid profiles enhanced communication between the different partners and specialists, contributing to a reduction in the time needed for the completion of the different tasks of the projects. This allowed time for further discussions and developments between the projects' participants. Cross-disciplinary efforts might be achieved in a number of ways:

  1. Individual researchers could be trained in the interdisciplinary perspective. Scientists possessing a strong background in heritage and/or archaeology, computer science and 3D modelling can formulate more appropriate theories to address issues related to digital preservation and communication of the archaeological record. This solution might have some limitations, since scientific practice requires a high degree of specificity and focus, and researchers might require high-level training in multiple alternative disciplines.
  2. A second way is through interdisciplinary co-operation, which sees a team of investigators from different disciplines working together on a common project. This solution seems the most common today, producing findings that are unlikely to have been obtained by departments and programs operating autonomously. This solution requires integration across discipline-specific methodologies. It has, however, some limitations, related to the very nature of inter- and multi-disciplinary collaborations. For instance, for scholars with a narrow, discipline-specific background, it might be difficult to generate research questions that cross the boundaries of their discipline.
  3. One possible solution to overcome the limitations of the previous two approaches would be to combine a strong discipline-specific training with basic knowledge on the theories and methodologies of other disciplines (e.g. computer science) and then initiate interdisciplinary collaborations. This approach can overcome the limitations of a discipline-specific focus as well as increasing critical awareness in favour of a genuine interdisciplinary approach. Moreover, it speeds up research design and data analysis, since all stakeholders involved in the study can easily problematise findings and interact to assess the original research design. The latter approach could generate results that can be applied to different disciplines, giving the opportunity to develop new research questions and theories.

From reducing visitor impact at fragile sites to creating a scientific record of conditions at a moment in time, as well as educating both young people and adults, there seems little question that Virtual Heritage and visualisation platforms have great value. Behind these systems, however, come vast meshes, model files, animations, and multimedia presentations. The challenge quickly becomes how to store, manage, and share such large repositories and platforms and make them useful beyond their initial needs. The Flaminia project is a clear example of how 3D contents and data can be transformed, optimised and re-used to allow the preservation of the information in the long term. This project was developed by a consolidated multi-disciplinary laboratory, the Virtual Heritage Lab (ITABC – CNR), which embraced the re-use of the data and the migration of the original application from the previous platform (Virtools) to the new one (Unity 3D). However, the migration of data and the development of platforms that exploit the most innovative technologies and software can be difficult to accomplish, owing to a lack of resources or a loss of interest in the continuation of the project by its stakeholders. To give an example from the Italian context, in a recent study aimed at presenting a recently funded trans-national network of virtual museums (V-Must project), Sofia Pescarin (2013) showed that in the years 1998 to 2008 there was a substantial increase in the number of Virtual Museums in Italy, which was not accompanied by strategies for maintaining, accessing and re-using the datasets from these museums. Thus, in a sample of 40 virtual museums, only 50% are still accessible. The main reasons behind the lack of specific strategies for maintaining the visualisation platforms relate to the dichotomy between platform designers and developers and platform maintainers. The latter are usually people with insufficient technical expertise, which, when combined with the lack of economic resources, makes it difficult to set a long-term plan for these 3D systems. For this reason, even though the ADS 3D viewer is at an initial stage and its longevity cannot be assessed, we believe that this project potentially represents a good example of long-term infrastructure for the following reasons:

  1. The code used for the development of the platform is open and reusable for future implementations;
  2. The integration of the viewer within the ADS repository increases the possibilities of its durability;
  3. The designers and developers of the infrastructure will be also responsible for its maintenance.

As we envisage ongoing research regarding the use of 3D visualisation systems in archaeology and heritage studies, we wish to stress the importance of evaluating these systems. This article has described several methods of evaluation as well as proposing novel methods of assessment that take into account cognitive aspects of human–object interaction in the virtual world. While most of the evaluations done to date have focused on summative assessments of the platforms, we believe that an efficient protocol for the design and development of 3D visualisation systems should incorporate formative, mid-term and summative evaluations. These should accommodate cognitive aspects of human–object interaction (e.g. perception, sense of presence, embodiment, etc.), usability, and how these platforms can contribute to learning processes as well as collaborative research.


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