Mummy, Can I Hang Mr Cragh Again Please?

Ƥǿşŧḗḓ ƀẏ: ohankir 4 years, 3 months ȧɠǿ

The question of visualisation is a vexed one, especially when dealing with scholarly output. In trying to make any visualisation look ‘authentic’, you will have to ju.jpgy each object that you include (or don’t include) in the scene unless you want to open your work up to criticism from the academy – trust me on this, I have had first-hand experience. Once a seed of doubt is planted, the flood gates open as others start to scrutinise the visual output of the work for imperfections rather than the underpinning scholarship. If a more schematic visualisation is attempted using massing models the problems don’t necessarily go away, but they can be reduced (see Harriett’s earlier post in regard to “grey boxes”); but they run the risk of appearing sterile and unexciting to the public.

So what is the point of visualising anything at all?

Well, a great deal; but it is necessary to understand a few things before we start to consider visualisation and how it can enhance our research *process*, not just our outputs.

First of all we should make the distinction between visualisation and reconstruction and distinguish the difference between these two terms which have become synonymous with each other. This distinction is a subtle but a crucial one and is wholly dependant on the nature of communication employed in outputting the computer model and its constituent data.

A reconstruction uses implication to communicate its message whereas visualisation relies on inference. To put it in less formal terms, a reconstruction presents one view of the underlying data, that of the author/creator, and as such it is illustrative and is opaque in terms of understanding the process by which the model was derived.

Conversely, a visualisation attempts to be as transparent as possible in terms of allowing the viewer to assess the underlying data and construction process presenting a multivocal (and often conflicting) datascape from which different data views can be made.

So the first question that needs to be asked is are we looking at the creation of a visualisation that will help scholars understand, interpret and challenge our hypotheses and findings, or are we creating a reconstruction to show off the results of our project in a compelling and engaging manner to a more general audience?

While the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is a lot of work to ensure that the objectives of both are met in a single output. Quite often we will start with a visualisation which allows both the project and other scholars to test out different theories and start to explore the visual narrative and dynamics of a space, and then at some point select one of these threads to be enhanced and ‘polished’ for public dissemination.

This leads onto the second question: who is the target audience for the output (again see Harriet’s previous post) and more specifically, what are their expectations? Terms like ‘authentic’, ‘realistic’, and ‘photorealism’ are often bandied around like some holy grail of scholarship and this is a massive problem – if you want that kind of quality then you are looking at movie or AAA games productions with their accompanying budgets. Photorealism doesn’t mean just putting nice textures on buildings but ensuring that everything from lighting and time of day to hard edge smoothing and ambient occlusion/dirt is present. Overlook any one of these and the higher the visual quality gets, the deeper into the “uncanny valley” the viewer is driven leading, paradoxically, to the output becoming less believable.

Reach for almost any modern publication on cultural heritage/archaeological sites and it is likely that there will be an almost obligatory computer reconstruction, fly-though or rebuilding sequence; however, try to find a visualisation of the same and the process becomes much more difficult. This is one of the dichotomies of the reconstruction/visualisation argument; reconstruction is such a persuasive and useful visual shorthand for getting the narrative of a hypothesis across that it has become over-fetishised as a medium for expressing the message. It is somehow assumed by the viewer that because it is based on a computer model, it is somehow scie.jpgically rigorous, or because it uses high production visual effects such as photorealism that a true to life representation of the object/item/building is being depicted.

For a scholar interested in exploring the dataset, does all this spit and polish amassed at a cost to the project actually enhance the usability of the visualisation? Is the potential for understanding the data it is derived from, exploring and contesting the premises made and generating new lines of enquiry all adding to the wider scholarship of the study actually being exploited? Or is it just simply noise – eye candy – that at best adds nothing and at worse either misinforms or distracts them from their scholarly purpose?

For the general public are such glossy products more acceptable or appropriate? Possibly, but there is a moral and ethical question about the production, use and consumption of high end visual representations, especially with controversial subject matters such as capital punishment. As scholars if we are producing a reconstruction we must ensure that everything added to the scene is indeed researched and correct, as whatever we produce will be taken as ‘fact’ because we are ‘experts’; failure to do so means misrepresenting the subject and can lead to de facto truth reinforcing the misconceptions that litter public views on history, and sadly in some cases scholarship.

Closely allied to the question of user expectation is the third question of what is the purpose of the visualisation? This is similar to Gareth’s previous post on how to visualise, but from the other side of the fence. If we are looking to explore accounts of the hanging of William Cragh, how much and how far can this be explored without becoming sensationalist or overstepping the mark of decency, bearing in mind that we cannot control who may see or interact with the final product? Yes, many people may desire to see a high quality representation of medieval Swansea, but without the hanging and everything that that entails then the visualisation is not useful to the project. (Admittedly it is a fascinating project in its own right - but it is just that, another project.)

Assuming that this and the previous question can be resolved (maybe through multiple implementations depending on the user expectations), then we must consider how the user will access the end product. Will this be received passively in the same way as a movie or series of illustrative stills, with or without a voice over (which is really just a reconstruction)? Will the output be more interactive in some way, using linked stills or panoramas akin to Google street view, a first person walkthrough or (and I hesitate to use the word) ‘gamified’, with all the problems that that may entail in terms of narrative and game play? To what level (if at all) will such interaction allow access to the good scholarly research the project has undertaken and provide a path by which the user participation within the visualisation can be integrated back to the project in a useful manner to extend the dialogue through annotation, reconfiguration and interrogation?

Such decisions need to be made to ensure that a focus is kept on delivering the right experience to the right user base, and will shape technical decisions such as development platform and delivery systems which again must be appropriate to the user if dissemination is to be maximised.

So do we know what it is that we want to produce?

Does it support the process of the project?

Is it useful to the objectives of the project?

Do we know who our audience(s) is/are?

Do we know what they are expecting?

Are we able (or in a position) to fulfil those expectations?

Are we prepared and disciplined enough in our own scholarship practice to be honest and transparent about our hypotheses and findings?

If we are able to answer all of the above, then we are ready to move forward; we will know if we are creating a visualisation or reconstruction. We will be able to use this to support the project (even if it is just valorisation) to a targeted audience who will understand what it is they are using and how to use it. Finally we will be able to plan the appropriate methods, implementations and support mechanisms to allow the user to become part of the project vision, increase the discourse around the subject and extend this to encompass other related areas.