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Creating and Using Virtual Reality: a Guide for the Arts and Humanities#

Virtual Reality Case Study Library#

Case Study 1: Brancusi's Mademoiselle Pogany at the Philadelphia Museum of Art #

Anthony McCall, Narrative Rooms

A navigable on-line exhibition built in VRML for the Philadelphia Museum of Art website to describe and set in context a series of sculptures that the artist Brancusi developed over a nineteen-year period.

Launched by the Philadelphia Museum of Art on June 1, 1998, the on-line exhibition 'Brancusi's Mlle Pogany' was written, designed and produced by Anthony McCall and Hank Graber of Narrative Rooms.

The exhibition can be found at: http://www.narrativerooms.com/pogany/vr/index_a.html


Narrative Rooms proposed the Brancusi project to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Anthony McCall developed the curatorial concept and the presentational aesthetic simultaneously and then worked with his colleague, Hank Graber, to realise it. Throughout the process the Philadelphia Museum of Art were interested and supportive observers, providing Narrative Rooms with generous access to their Brancusi collection but remaining firmly on the sidelines. However, when shown the finished result the Museum were extremely enthusiastic and launched the project officially on their site. McCall recommends a small team for this type of project with the active participation of a Senior Curator.

VR and the Museum

The digital presence of a museum on the World Wide Web can be fraught with difficulty. Planning has to take account of the fact that the digital museum must cater to different needs. A user may access the site merely to find out opening times before visiting the real museum. By contrast, another user may live many thousands of miles away and never visit the real museum but instead hope that the virtual museum has enough content to satisfy other curiosities. Spending large amounts of time and money replicating a site which uses the real architecture and look of the museum for its digital presence is irrelevant to the remote user.

In seeking a literal representation of physical reality some virtual reality designers look to architecture for inspiration. As a design discipline, architecture is driven by the constraints of physics and the manner in which people interact with their environment and each other in the physical world. On-line information environments will need to draw on these real architectural worlds for images and metaphors, but it makes very little sense to attempt to build "realistic" virtual replicas of real architectural spaces. Designers would be better served looking to theater, where narrative drives design, and visual references to the real world are expected to be interpretive rather than literal. The imagery of a theatrical set, for instance, may isolate a certain image, render it in exaggerated scale and give it a specific emotional coloring. This iconographic approach would also suit the small scale of the online experience, as well as being a practical response to the limitations imposed by bandwidth.

Many virtual museum authors seem to forget that whilst their building is an important part of their presence in the physical world, the museum actually exists as a concept to collect objects and create interpretive displays around them. Too often virtual museums are architectural rather than interpretive or narrative. Narrative Rooms' Mlle Pogany does not replicate a real room to the point of photographic reality. Instead it concentrates on displaying sculptures and related items in a 'suggested' reality. Only two architectural metaphors (inlaid floor and imposing doorways) are needed to situate the user firmly within a museum environment. Thus situated, the user can concentrate on the exhibits themselves.

What also differentiates the Mlle Pogany exhibition from other digital musuems is its use of content and conventions created exclusively for the Web and not transferred from the real museum directly. Too often digital museums show exhibitions that are taking place in the real museums. Whilst this is useful perhaps for the prospective real visitor, a virtual visitor need not be served up a secondhand version of a real exhibition. Photographs of a real exhibition, when condensed into the scale and medium of the Web, serve to tell the virtual visitor nothing about the objects displayed. For instance a photograph of a real exhibition will not show the information boards in sufficient detail for the virtual visitor to participate in any interpretation of objects. Likewise the objects or paintings themselves are unlikely to have been produced in any detail. The Mlle Pogany exhibition uses that museum metaphor of information boards but with thought for the change in medium and scale, reproducing them on an exaggerated scale. Likewise it is selective in the photographs and supporting information that it reproduces at a sensible scale. Much thought has gone into the narrative experience and the way that the technology can be used to bring this out.

The Interface

Narrative Rooms decided that the proprietary VRML CosmoPlayer interface was inappropriate for what they were trying to achieve. They found it complicated, offering the average web user too many options for movement, thus allowing too many opportunities to become lost. They felt that this caused the user to concentrate on navigating rather than the actual content of the VRML world. Acting on this they customised the interface, simplifying the navigation only to that available with the familiar mouse. The price paid for this (loss of ability to look down, look up, slide sideways etc.) was felt to be worth it, as the visitor gained concentration and engagement with the content.

The Dynamic Map

Screenshot of the dynamic map

Figure 5: Screenshot of the dynamic map

In many digital museums the map is a continually used metaphor, allowing the user to perhaps click on it and enter that part of the museum that the clicked part of the map represents. This map is much more navigational and sophisticated as it exists at the side of the VRML window and it continually updates to show the user where they are in the exhibition at any one time. Initially Narrative Rooms did not provide a map. However, after discussing the experience of going round this first (mapless) version of the exhibition with colleagues and friends, they discovered that there was a desire to understand where the user was in the exhibition: how far they had come, how much more was there; and in addition, some reported getting lost and being uncertain where to turn to get back on track. The map was a response to this, and has been found to satisfy all those problems: it tells the user not only where they are, but, importantly, what direction they are facing (this is particularly useful when the visitor has been walking around one of the sculptures and wishes afterwards to proceed in the right direction).

Such a juxtaposition of 2-D and 3-D touches on one of the fundamental questions about 3-D navigation on the Web: how successful is it?

One of the claims for 3-D is that it provides a more intuitive interface than 2-D because it is more like the real world. Anyone who has suffered through the experience of navigating the typical VRML world on-line can tell you that it is nothing like the physical world; neither is it "naturally" more intuitive than other media that have had time to develop and whose conventions and vocabulary have become a well understood part of the culture.

Technical Details

Developing the structure
Developing the structure

Figure 6a and 6b: Developing the structure

Following an extensive period of research, a tentative structure was developed in which the project was blocked out in the form of drawings, storyboards, and written texts. The first 3-D model was constructed in Alias Power Animator running on an SGI workstation and exported to Cosmo Worlds, a VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) authoring tool, for viewing.

Digitising Mlle. Pogany
Digitising Mlle. Pogany

Figure 7a and 7b: Digitising Mlle. Pogany

Once the editorial content and layout of the exhibition were fleshed out, the team went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their mobile digital studio to digitise the two sculptures that were to be the exhibition's focus. Architectural details within the museum were also photographed to provide a starting point for designing the architecture of the virtual space. A 3-D laser scanning process gradually built up a three-dimensional topographical map of the object. A colour video camera within the scanner recorded the textures and colours of the object's surfaces and combined that visual information with the topographical data. The process is harmless to the object being scanned since there is no physical contact.

Views of the completed exhibition
Views of the completed exhibition

Figure 8a and 8b: Views of the completed exhibition

Back in the studio, the 1,200,000 polygons that made up the dataset of each sculpture had to be reduced to the 900 or so polygons that can reasonably be displayed on a standard home PC. The editorial materials and the 2-D digital images brought back from the museum were put into an image editing program on a Macintosh computer to create the final images for the 3-D exhibition; these included the photographic and text panels, plus the floors and doorways that became the defining architectural elements of this virtual world.

With all the elements of the exhibition assembled and the VRML programming done, the file was sent to Radical Virtual Reality in the Netherlands. The Java programmers at Radical customised the navigation interface to Narrative Rooms' specifications. The first complete version of Brancusi's Mlle Pogany was ready.

Tests were then conducted, both internally and within the museum, to check that the assumptions made about ease of navigation held up and to assess how effectively the exhibition was telling its story. This useful process helped the team to make significant technical and editorial adjustments before uploading the exhibition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art web site.

The use of two very basic architectural metaphors, that of the doorway and the floor, to suggest the space of the exhibition certainly has an aesthetic justification, but it is also a practical response to the necessity of keeping files small. McCall states that his colleague Hank Graber is a 'genius' at compression! The entire exhibition has a file size of only 400 kilobits.

For more information see 'Making Mlle Pogany' at http://www.narrativerooms.com