3.3 Interaction and engagement with 3D digital objects

Latour also argues that both humans and non-humans achieve agency as a relational property, distributed across hybridised human–non-human networks, also called actor-actant dichotomies (Latour 2003, 31; 1999, 308). He calls things quasi-objects, hybrids of cultures-natures produced by and within networks of relations (Latour 1993, 54). Things are hybrids because of their linkages. But what happens when interactions between actors and actants happen in a mingling of physical and virtual reality? Are the actors and actants involved in the interaction subject to similar experiential phenomena as if they were interacting in the physical world? In a recent study, Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco et al. (2016) tried to answer these questions by investigating how people describe ancient artefacts using gestures. The authors were specifically interested in how people would interact with, understand, and describe objects presented in five different media conditions:

Participants – both professional archaeologists and students – were videoed describing ancient artefacts. The analysis of gestures in the current study clearly shows that, in the absence of a tactile experience, people reproduce stereotypical iconic gestures as if they were actually touching the object. Iconic gestures often convey spatial information; they help people mimic object manufacturing and function. Gestures can also be used to describe details of a form and help people estimate the size of an object. When people described objects they also produced 'beat' gestures. Beat gestures are brief, rhythmic hand movements that facilitate lexical access (see Krauss 1998) without conveying any particular semantic information. For instance, when describing an artefact a participant might try to recall information read in a book and, while struggling to recall it, produce a quick gesture (e.g. shaking one hand) to help her remember. Participants who interacted with digital 3D objects produced a significantly higher number of beat gestures. Following Krauss (1998), it is possible that the high number of beat gestures reflects a lack of certainty about artefact details (i.e. participants were less certain about what they were talking about). Another possible explanation of the high production of beat gestures in the 3D condition could be that beat gestures helped participants compensate for the lack of a tactile experience. The high number of gestures could indicate that participants recognised a difference, a frame, between the physical and the virtual world and tried to fill this gap using gestures. The use of gestures may have helped them have a more embodied experience with the artefact. Similar results were observed in follow-up study aimed at evaluating human-object interaction in a 3D immersive environment (Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco et al. 2015: experiment no. 3). We compared the interaction of the general public with the real-life object showcased on a screen and its digital and physical 3D reproduction (3D copy; 3D print). We video-recorded them during their experience with the different media and then analysed their bodily interaction (gestures) with the objects. The results of our experiments suggest that in the absence of a tactile experience with the original artefacts, the sample of people participating in our experiments favoured a tactile or semi-tactile experience with replicas to the visual experience with original ancient objects. They liked to engage with new technologies to understand ancient artefacts, suggesting how the integrated use of traditional displays, 3D immersive systems, and 3D prints can be used as an effective way to increase perception, understanding, and engagement with artefacts (Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco et al. 2015).


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