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Author: John Bonnett
Title: Panel Introduction: 3D Virtual Environments and the Discipline of History
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2003

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Source: Panel Introduction: 3D Virtual Environments and the Discipline of History
John Bonnett

vol. 6, no. 2, September 2003
Article Type: Article

Panel Introduction: 3D Virtual Environments and the Discipline of History

John Bonnett

Research Officer

Institute for Information Technology

National Research Council of Canada

46 Dineen Drive

Fredericton, NB


Historians — as a rule — are busy people. The job description we impose upon ourselves and our colleagues is not for the faint of heart. In our daily practice, there is always another lecture to write, another literature to master, another student paper to mark, and another professional responsibility to fulfill. It's important work. And scholars justifiably take pride in that work. But the regimen also imposes a price. It can inhibit historians from considering and reappraising the role and function of their discipline, and the humanities at large. Times change. Our surrounding social and cultural contexts change. It is reasonable to suggest that change without can and should have a bearing on the historian's practice within. The role and practice of the historian in the 21st century will be different from that of his contemporary in the 20th century.

The purpose of this panel is to suggest that cultural and technical changes emerging today will soon impose an important requirement for historians: the need to re-examine the aesthetics of their discipline. The computer is becoming a ubiquitous platform for representing and disseminating information. Its methods for interaction and representation are continuously evolving, and it behooves scholars to explore the opportunities and constraints these innovations will afford. The purpose of this panel is to explore one innovation: the likelihood that 3D objects and virtual environments will emerge as increasingly central constituents of communication, within the discipline of history, and without. In April of this year, a consortium of five Japanese companies — including Sony and Sanyo — formed for the express purpose of developing applications to support the generation of 3D content, and establishing protocols to promote the dissemination of 3D content. Their reason? Their expectation that by the end of this decade 3D content and applications will generate billions of dollars worth of business.

Put simply, this panel was formed due to the expectation that economic drivers will change the way society at large communicates, and that such innovations will eventually make their way into the discipline of history. Historians would do well to prepare for them. And more specifically, they would do well to consider how topographic information can be used to display research and support teaching. In the first paper of this panel, "Following in Rabelais' Footsteps: Immersive History and the 3D Virtual Buildings Project" John Bonnett suggests historians use the process of 3D model construction as a device to develop critical thinking skills in students. The program Bonnett describes enables students to generate models of historic settlements, and also affords an important benefit. It enables students to realize that a distinction must be made between models, and the objects they purport to represent. Bonnett also suggests that appropriation of 3D will require historians to change their practice. High quality representations of the past will require digital historians to work as collaborative teams.

While Bonnett's paper concentrates primarily on the utility of 3D objects, Tom Taylor's paper emphasizes the importance that new, non-linear, narrative genres will play in governing a user's perception of 3D objects, and the relations between them. Influenced by the writings of Janet Murray, Taylor believes that certain forms of knowledge are better perceived by users when displayed in virtual environments, as opposed to print. In an intriguing case study, Taylor points to his use of the game Civilization in his world history course. The game is based on Paul Kennedy's classic The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and interestingly, Taylor suggests that students who played the game gained a deeper understanding of the core concepts underlying Kennedy's book than those students who did not. For Taylor, history emerges as a multi-causal, wonderfully complex thing. The challenge is to help students appreciate this point, and for Taylor the computer often does a better job of meeting this challenge than traditional, linear forms of representation.

In closing, it's worth emphasizing an important point that Tom Taylor has emphasized in an earlier study: harnessing the benefits of information technology requires an extraordinary commitment from historians, especially in time. [1] Leaving aside the time required to learn new software applications, the computer can be a tremendously frustrating device to incorporate into the classroom. Devices crash. Software can fail to live up to expectation. Students with differing abilities will enjoy differing degrees of success with the computer, and will demand more attention than traditionally afforded in the lecture classroom. Putting the matter simply, Information Technology is hard. But if the papers presented by Bonnett and Taylor are any measure, Information Technology also affords rich opportunities, potential and actual, for historians. They would do well to seize them.

1. Tom Taylor. "Using the Simulation CIVILIZATION in a World Survey Course," History Microcomputer Review, 10:1(Spring 1994): 11-16.

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