2.7 Problems with VRML

Although virtual reality based installations and VRML ease the construction and access of virtual worlds, there are still problems with this new language. Technical, practical and theoretical issues need to be addressed before any virtual reality is used in a public setting.

VRML is not the best virtual reality system. It is rather a 'jack-of-all-trades', providing many basic functions that are designed to run on all platforms. It can never replace more sophisticated specialised VR systems optimised for specific tasks or configured to run on specialised hardware. It is, however, a standard, and the best standard that exists at the present time for the publication, construction and viewing of virtual worlds on different platforms.

One problem with VRML is its newness. There are VRML browsers for most common platforms (Macintosh, Windows NT, Windows 95, Windows 3.1, SGI, Irix, and Sun) but the browsers are not yet all consistent with the final VRML 2.0 specification, nor with each other. There is no way as yet to get standard colours in a VRML world and different browsers will display the same object with different hues and shading. Building an interactive VRML world requires the use of small snippets of code; whilst VRML has its own script it is very basic, and complex user interaction requires the use of another language. The VRML specification does not state which language should be used. Unlike other VR systems, VRML allows the user to interact with the world as it loads, and this means the designer has to develop interactive worlds carefully to ensure the world does not crash if partially loaded. VRML world files often run into thousands of lines of code which can be very hard to navigate, even with extensive remarks. VRML is very case and syntax sensitive and errors that may not produce obvious effects may result in errors in the rest of the file. Debugging VRML files is difficult and tedious, even with the use of some tools such as Vorlon which are being developed to check the code syntax. The future of VRML is also in question as a result of the developers of the associated software (Silicon Graphics, then Platinum) ceasing production of any further VRML-based systems. VRML may either evolve into a more sophisticated language or cease to be used. Granted, some of these problems are not applicable to museum installations which will run on a predefined platform using predefined software, but such issues need to be kept in mind whilst developing a world which should be usable on any platform yet remains future compliant.

Practical problems with developing archaeological reconstructions for installation in museums include the costs involved, and the time and effort it still takes to produce such an installation. Even though VRML provides the means to create a virtual world on a standard computer, the computer still has to be purchased, and the creation of such a world remains labour intensive. Additionally, there is often scepticism among curators and art historians towards the benefits of using modern technology in public displays (Economou 1997, 39). Even if the new technology is accepted, the lack of familiarity with virtual reality can mean it is impossible for institutions to supply a suitable set of requirements for the resource (Mitchell 1997). Other issues such as policy, procedures and copyright have become paramount in the creation of electronic displays, and the virtual world builder has to consider many legal issues before making the world publicly accessible.

There are also a number of theoretical problems surrounding the use of virtual archaeological reconstructions for public education. Electronic displays in museums have been shown to carry authority with the public; apparently just because the display is on a computer, it is assumed to be correct. Some virtual reality worlds found on the web are very realistic, and some may appear realistic even though based on incomplete evidence, but nevertheless imply firm knowledge of the past:

Archaeological evidence for a building may consist of little more than a few fragments of wall foundation, perhaps severely disturbed by later human or geological survey. A building may have been altered or rebuilt on several occasions, often with changes in its appearance and function. Unfortunately most current visualizations of the past provide a single view, representing not just a snapshot in time but also only one of many possible constructions of the surviving evidence. Much more is needed to capture the full range of both temporal change... and possible interpretations (Roberts and Ryan 1997).

It should always be remembered that:

models are largely interpretative; they are working hypotheses and liable to change. It is not always obvious what the relation is between the recorded data and the interpretations which are built around them. There is a real danger of convincing the uncritical viewer that the model presented shows what the original really would have looked like (Reilly and Rahtz 1992, 157).
Care must be taken to strike a balance between the desire to produce realistic images and the need to express the theoretical nature of an interpreted form (Ryan 1996).


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Last updated: Mon Nov 29 1999