A Robot Named Bridget
(and what she means for the future of archaeology).
by Hannah McLean, DHi Intern
I made a new friend Monday night, March 6, 2017. Her name is Bridget, and she’s a tiny robot who lives inside a virtual version of the DHi lab. I spent about five minutes tossing an orange ball across the table and watching it bounce to the floor as Bridget chased after it. The future is now.
Seriously, though, the piece of tech that brought Bridget to life is incredible and has mind-boggling application possibilities. It’s called the Bridge Engine, and Invited Speaker Dr. Eric Poehler brought it to the DHi on Monday night for our weekly Virtual Reality open lab hours.
Typically, we spend the time from 7-9pm every Monday night playing games and interacting with the little robot dog on the Vive (what is so endearing about tiny virtual robots?) or using Samsung’s Gear VR device to look at some of the projects our researchers have been working on. However, this week we took advantage of the fact that Dr. Poehler was on campus as part of our DHi Speaker Series to share some of what we’ve been doing with him and hear his thoughts on virtual reality and digital humanities in general.
Back to the Bridge. The Bridge makes use of what’s called “mixed reality,” which is currently occupying the space somewhere between augmented and virtual reality. While virtual reality creates an entirely new world and places you in it, augmented reality superimposes data and images over the real world. Virtual reality can make you feel as if you’re standing on a distant planet, augmented reality can make you feel as if aliens are bursting through the walls of your living room. Virtual reality places you in another world—augmented reality brings the other world to you.
Mixed reality does both: creates a separate environment out of the real one. In the case of the Bridge last Monday, this meant that the headset’s infrared sensor spent about half an hour scanning the table and corner of the DHi lab and then created a virtual 3-D model of the space. So when I put the headset on, the first thing I saw in front of me was a white blob that looked vaguely familiar. As I stepped forward, the camera kicked in and a live image of the space was projected onto the 3-D model. What I was seeing in front of me was a virtual version of the real world, occupying the same virtual space that the real table and chairs were. I could reach out and touch the table, and it was exactly where I expected it to be.
“Soooooo…what do you do with this?” I asked after a moment. After all, it was just a lower quality version of what I would be seeing if I took the headset off.
Dr. Poehler audibly gasped at my question, his head spinning with possibilities that hadn’t yet even occurred to me. As an archaeologist, he explained, he could use the Bridge to tap on a virtual version of a wall in Pompeii and mark it with information, or draw a virtual line between slightly different types of architecture. Of course, that could also be done with an augmented reality tool such as the Microsoft Hololens, but mixed reality could allow Dr. Poehler to reposition himself in the space, to “hover” higher so he could interact with places he couldn’t previously reach. It would also allow him to take the model of a very real place out of the field and back to the lab, so people could further study it there.
The more we talked, the more possible applications for the Bridge and similar technologies we came up with. Augmented or mixed reality can be used to make an ancient city appear full of people and life. It can be used to enhance an exhibit, give a virtual tour, make people feel as if the past is coming to life around them.
So the fact that I can use a small metal button to “throw” an entirely virtual ball across a virtual version of a very real table and watch a tiny robot chase after it is really much more incredible than I initially realized. Something like mixed reality would barely have been conceivable 10, 15, 20 years ago. But that’s what Digital Humanities means: chasing after this kind of technology, keeping up with its rapid development, and figuring out new ways to use it to learn, record, and communicate more about the world around us.