Virtual reality and immersive environments allow embodiment and perspective in new ways. What might this mean for students and researchers seeking to understand experiences far removed from their own?
VR and immersive environments are a projective extension of human reality and offer experiences that would otherwise be impossible. How could we even begin to visualize for ourselves, say, Marco Polo’s Hangzhou, in 13th century China, the greatest city of its time, with an estimated 1.5 million people? VR can enable us to walk around the city, listen to soundscapes, look at where the bridges are positioned, watch entertainments taking place on the lakes, and understand how the city is laid out, when our own capacity to visualize from historical or literary material fails us, because the subjects are so distant in time and place from our everyday reality. Even when they survive the centuries, some places are literally inaccessible today. Sarah Kenderdine’s 3D visualization-in-the-round of the Dun Huang caves, using animation and AR, enables students and researchers to experience Cave 220, now closed to visitors because of its fragility. Because immersive environments are data-driven creations, they are uniquely valuable cultural experiences that extend the possibilities of knowing, and of experiencing the global past, in resource-rich ways. They’re not fantasy creations for purely recreational purposes, like movies and popular video games—which are entertaining and fun, and therefore useful too, but are imaginary, rather than data-driven, learning encounters.
If you have access to data-driven, re-created worlds that circumvent time and space, the sense of discovery and wonder in exploration, coupled with the intimacy and immediacy of your sensory experience, should conduce to the evolution of new kinds of empathy and increase intellectual sensitivity to cultures distant from your own quotidian reality. If you can experience virtually how a woman lived, in a house or a town on the Swahili coast in the 15th century, you might better understand how women functioned in human societies on the Swahili coast. These sensory experiences are social, humanizing encounters of a new kind in the 21st century, inviting empathy on the part of the person undergoing the experience. They are important ways to make the past live again, a global past—ignored too much in the West—which can challenge some of the old, tired, received cliches in the West, like the claim that there was only one industrial revolution, or only one scientific revolution, and these occurred in modern time in the West, or the claim that sub-Saharan Africa had little engagement with the world till colonization. As the technologies improve, so will our human responses and empathic experiences.
Cultural and contextual understanding is crucial. If there are gaps in understanding, we run the risk of misrepresenting the cultures we visualize digitally and amplifying mistakes already committed by selective historiography (selective historiography that often coincides with foundational historiography, I should add). We can mitigate the dangers by ensuring that our research into those cultures is robust and as complete as possible before progressing to the design phase.
In sum, what are the promises and pitfalls of immersive environments for global medieval studies?
Pitfalls: inadequate research and cultural sensitivity in preparation and design. Promise: potentially, panoramic reconfiguration of how our entire premodern past is studied, in media-rich, resource-rich, environments, in which the global does not have an ultimate horizon.