Petworth Park and Pokemon too

Yesterday’s post was timely, it turns out, because today, Pokemon Go was released in the wild. I downloaded it and caught my first two Pokemon in the Great Hall at Chawton, waiting for a meeting that I’ll write more about tomorrow. But after that meeting I was off down to Petworth to have a go… Continue reading Petworth Park and Pokemon too

Yesterday’s post was timely, it turns out, because today, Pokemon Go was released in the wild. I downloaded it and caught my first two Pokemon in the Great Hall at Chawton, waiting for a meeting that I’ll write more about tomorrow. But after that meeting I was off down to Petworth to have a go with the new(ish) Park Explorer.


The Park Explorer is one of the outputs of a three year long archeology project, exploring what’s under the Capability Brown landscape that survives today. I have some responsibility for the way it works. When my colleague Tom explained his plan to build a mobile application, I dissuaded him. There is little evidence that many people  download apps in advance of their visit to Heritage sites. And even fewer wish to deplete their data allowance on the mobile network to download it on site.

Together, we came up with an alternative – using solar powered Info-points to create wifi hotspots around the park that could deliver media to any phone capable of logging on to wifi, and browsing the web. Though in this case it’s not the World Wide Web, but a series of basic webpages offering maps, AV, etc. We’re running this installation as a bit of an experiment to gauge demand, to see, if it’s offered, how many people actually log on.

Pokemon Go demonstrated why the technology might be useful. With the app newly downloaded on my phone I, of course, wanted to try it out in Petworth’s pleasure grounds. I’d guessed right, the garden’s Ionic Rotunda and Doric Temple are both Pokestops.  But the wireless signal is so weak and patchy (on O2 at least) that the game could hardly log on, let alone do anything when I got within range. After a frustrating few minutes I gave up and returned to the local wifi.

That crummy phone signal is one of the reasons we went to solar powered local wifi. Once I logged on I was soon listening to the voice of my colleague Tom as he explained some of the archeology of the garden, watching an animated film of the development of the park and scrubbing away a photo of the current three person gardening team and their power tools to reveal a black and white photo of the small  army of gardeners that used to work here.

All of this was very good. But there are some issues that I think need to be addressed if the idea is to catch on. First of all, finding the wifi signal and logging on isn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped. Your browser need to be pointed at 10.0.0.1 to find the home page. The home page design leaves something to be desired. The floating button to change text size seems an afterthought that annoyingly obscures the text its trying to clarify. Navigation isn’t intuitive (no obvious way forward from the welcome splash pictured above, for example) or that well organised – I’d hoped that I’d be offered media that was closest to my position (as identified by the hotspot I was logged into), but the browse button just led to a list of things. Switching to the map view was easier, but it showed the design lacked a degree of responsiveness – see below how the word “Map” is partially obscured by the tile with the actual map on. The pins that link to different media suggest that its good to be standing in particular places to view that media, but on the few that I tried around the pleasure grounds, there seemed to be no discernible benefit to being in the right spot. In the end I settled under a spreading Oak to sit and work my way through what was on offer.

One feature that worked well to compare old and new and see change over the centuries was the scrub away photo feature. Even here though there was a fault in the responsiveness of the design. If I turned the phone into landscape mode, the picture became full screen and I lost the ability to reset it.

Click to view slideshow.

I imagined how good it would be, if it looked and felt (and responded) like the National Trust’s current website. Maybe, with a bit of work, it can.

More work would be and investment though, so, first of all though we need to interrogate the system’s solar powered servers, and see how many people are giving it a try.


Hadrian’s Wall with Bricks to the Past

A couple of weeks ago we went to the Great Western Brick Show (which used to be the Great Western Lego Show, until one party or the other decided not to license the Lego trademark). This takes place annually at Steam, the railway museum in Swindon, and is just one of a growing number of… Continue reading Hadrian’s Wall with Bricks to the Past

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A couple of weeks ago we went to the Great Western Brick Show (which used to be the Great Western Lego Show, until one party or the other decided not to license the Lego trademark). This takes place annually at Steam, the railway museum in Swindon, and is just one of a growing number of large events run by AFOLs (Adult Fans Of Lego). It’s full of impressive models, but this year’s triumph was a huge diorama of a section of Hadian’s Wall.

Click to view slideshow.

It was built by Bricks to the Past, a collective of Lego-builders with a particular interest in history. Their inspiration comes from University of Newcastle’s FutureLearn course Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier. I’ll have to try to persuade them to enroll on Southampton’s Portus course next time it runs, though they are probably looking for a non-Roman project next year.

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The massive model depicted aspects of life on both sides of the wall, with a Pictish village and Iron Age barrow by Simon Pickard,  on the “uncivilized” side, and a Roman Villa by Steve Snasdell on the other.

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I had a brief chat with the builders at the show and they talked about some of the compromises they made with scale, particularly on James Pegrum’s fort, so they they could fit interesting features (for example Roman latrines) into the diorama.

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They also included features for future minifigure archaeologists to find, around the perimeter, people could peek underground into charnal pits and burial sites.

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They had no idea how many bricks they’d used in the model, but it looked like hundreds of thousands. Having struggled with the roof on my Portus Magazzini model I was particularly interested in their imaginative use of cylinder and hinge bricks (among others) to create a variety of roof styles.

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Apart from the diorama, the group also made other Roman archeology inspired models, such as a centurion, a Romulus and Remus plaque and a fragment of tiled flooring.

Click to view slideshow.

All in all, it was an inspiring piece of Lego visualization.

 

 


Participate in research and (maybe) win!

Fleur Schinning is currently writing her master’s thesis as a part of her specialisation in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology. Public archaeology has been developing considerably in the Netherlands for the last couple of years, but… Continue reading Participate in research and (maybe) win!

Fleur Schinning is currently writing her master’s thesis as a part of her specialisation in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology. Public archaeology has been developing considerably in the Netherlands for the last couple of years, but much can still be improved concerning public outreach activities. This is why she has decided to focus her research on social and digital communication methods that might make archaeology more accessible for a wider public.

Her research is looking at several blogs from both the UK and USA; in these countries blogging seems widely accepted and used a lot as a tool in creating support for archaeology. To be able to explore how blogging in archaeology contributes to public archaeology,  she would like to question the bloggers and (this is where you come in) readers of these blogs. She has created a questionnaire for you dear reader, which can be accessed here: http://goo.gl/forms/z3BAUTyYUL.

All participants also have a chance to win a small prize; 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine!

Go on, you know you want to!


The Magazzini Realised #buildyourownportus

Yesterday, I got the Lego bricks I’d ordered last week. So I set about building, to see if I’d got my LDD (Lego Digital Designer) design right. After I’d ordered them, I’d already spotted a few bricks I hadn’t put … Continue reading

Yesterday, I got the Lego bricks I’d ordered last week. So I set about building, to see if I’d got my LDD (Lego Digital Designer) design right. After I’d ordered them, I’d already spotted a few bricks I hadn’t put into the LLD model, and thus weren’t on my order list. But I was disappointed to that there were a a number of pieces – the corner tiles, the 1×4 bricks – that I’d entirely missed when I was ordering.

So I had to raid my boys collection – luckily he had plenty of the right sort of bricks, plus some others (tiles especially) that weren’t available from Lego’s brick order service. so what I’ve ended up with isn’t exactly the model I designed.

Click to view slideshow.

In the building of it, I discovered weaknesses in the construction – for example, the solid wall can be pushed down off the model too easily when fixing the upper story onto the ground floor. But of course, the advantage of work with your hands, building with bricks instead of of bits, is that structural improvements are somehow more immediately apparent. The concept of learning styles has been pretty effectively debunked over the last few years, but there does remain the idea that you can learn about different things in different ways. My hands could “see” the model better than my eyes looking at the computer model.

One thing I wanted to check that I’d found very difficult to measure was the height of the two units stacked on top of each other. The archaeological evidence suggests the brick walls of the building were 11 metres high (the roof of course was higher still). Using my rudimentary 1 stud = 1 metre scale, my model should stand 11 studs high. Measuring height is very difficult in LDD, because one standard brick is more than one stud high, and especially because the LLD environment does not come with a vertical scale. Comparing my model with other CAD models of the building, it looks shorter, more squat, less elegant than the CAD ones. However, I was please to see that, when measured with a twelve stud tile, my physical model is just about eleven studs high.

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So I’m going to deconstruct the model and rebuild it, physically and in LDD, with the bricks beside my screen. My aim is to make it stronger, and use less bricks. I’m not sure we are going to be able to build an entire model during the Festival of Archaeology (especially at standard list prices), but I still want to build the most efficient, model I can.

Which I’m sure was the aim of the Roman builders of the Grandi Magazzini, nigh-on a couple of decades ago.


The Magazzini Simplified #buildyourownportus

Yesterday I returned to the Lego model of the Grandi Magazzini, that I was building in Lego Digital Designer last year. We’ve got an idea to do a day of modelling during the upcoming 25th Festival of Archaeology. Obviously, we’ll cover … Continue reading

Click to view slideshow.

Yesterday I returned to the Lego model of the Grandi Magazzini, that I was building in Lego Digital Designer last year. We’ve got an idea to do a day of modelling during the upcoming 25th Festival of Archaeology. Obviously, we’ll cover the “proper” modelling (CGI and 3D printing for example) as well as Lego, but I thought it would be fun to enable every visitor to the department to make at least one of the “warehouse units” and, over the course of the open day, build up more and more towards the complete Grandi Magazzini.

But to do that, I need to redesign my model. Not all the pieces I used in Lego Digital Designer are actually available. For example, my first model made extensive use of a “BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2″ arch, which isn’t currently available – but more on that later. I needed to redesign the model using only bricks (and colours) that are available on Lego’s pick-a-brick custom order service.

But not only that, I wanted to make it slightly easier to build physically – my previous model would not have allowed for building a single unit and then plugging it on to the main model, at least not without some deconstruction. I alos wanted to use fewer bricks. They are not cheap on the pick-a-brick service.

With those three aims, I set about remaking the model, sticking as much as possible to the dimensions of my previous attempt which, a little bit through judgement, but also with a lot of luck, just about managed to keep to the one stud per metre scale I’d decided upon.

I lost some of the detail in the bricks I couldn’t use, but the most missed brick was the BRICK WITH BOW 1x6x2, which was a lovely Romaneque arch. I had to replace it, in most places with two half-arches. In some places it actually worked better the arches of each floor’s colonnade are now closer to the 5.2 metre width that the evidence points to. The 1x6x2 brick restricted each opening to a width of just four metres. Inside though, the “vaulting” on the rearmost room looks distinctly “gothic”. I decided I could live with that, but the same thing happens on top floor of the rear external walls. Those half-arch bricks are relatively efficient, cost-wise, so I’ve retained them on that rear wall for the time being. But I fear their impact in multiplicity, across the exterior might give the wrong impression, it might make the building look like a monastery, more ecclesiastical than mercantile.

Its funny isn’t when visualizing something, how you have to be aware of the interpretations that people bring with them to the visualisation. If people had never seen gothic architecture, I might be happier to leave these arches as they are. But I have another idea involving a shallower arch, which while still not “Roman” in shape, may be less of a compromise. This solution will look more 19th century industrial, but perhaps that “industrial” interpretation is closer to what we think was the original use of the building.

Right now though, I’m leaving it as is. Its time to move away from the computer and the theory, and try to build what I’ve designed in real life. So I’ve ordered the required bricks from Lego (for £25 including postage) and when they arrive I’ll see how easy it is for my boy (our target market for this I’m sure) to put together.


On Sirmione, jewel of peninsulars

Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas, jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters or the great sea, or either ocean, with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you, scarcely believing myself free of Thynia and the Bithynian fields, seeing … Continue reading

Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas,
jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters
or the great sea, or either ocean,
with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you,
scarcely believing myself free of Thynia
and the Bithynian fields, seeing you in safety.
O what freedom from care is more joyful
than when the mind lays down its burden,
and weary, back home from foreign toil,
we rest in the bed we longed for?
This one moment’s worth all the labour.
Hail, O lovely Sirmio, and rejoice as I rejoice,
and you, O lake of Lydian waters, laugh
with whatever of laughter lives here.

Catallus Poems, 31 Sirmio

  

Last week, the family and I took a break in Italy. We stayed on the shores of Lake Garda, and the first thing we did, was visit one of the most important cultural attractions of the Lake, GardaLand.

But the very next day, we went to the southern peninsular, Sirmione. At the very tip of this rocky finger which, on the map at least, seems to command views right up to the Northern end of the lake, lie ancient Roman ruins.

They are misnamed. Known, since the eighteenth century at least, as the Grotte di Catullo, most of the visible ruins date from long after that pre-Christian poet died. But as his poem (above) evidences, he did once live on the peninsular, and regard it as his home. And there is evidence of another, older, villa upon which the buildings that these ruins describe was built.

  

The scale of the place is fascinating. We arrived on the ferry from Peschiera del Garda, which is the very best way to arrive because it showcases the ruins as the ferry rounds the tip of the peninsular. From the water, the great brick and stone arches (which, if I read the interpretation correctly, comprise just the footings and undercroft of the villa) look huge. Their presence alone makes the massive scale of building five at Portus less surprising. You mind yourself thinking, as your boat chugs round to the dock, that this could not be some private villa, but surely, such an impressive building, which such a commanding view of the lake, must have had some sort of governmental purpose? The modelled illustrations on the interpretation boards play up the that sense of scale. And on a hot day (like the day of our visit) you wonder if you really want to take the walk from one end to the other. But then, you are surprised by the compactness of the site. Or at least I was. While walking among the pillars and columns, I was still impressed and overwhelmed by their height, but walking between them, traversing the site, across its width and length, and domestic scale reasserted itself, and yes, you can believe it might have been a villa (all-be-it an impressive one).

  

I mentioned the interpretation panels, and its worth returning to them. There’s a language problem – and its not that I don’t know any Italian. The panels were all double sided and repeated the same information in Italian, German, French and English. The problem was the language of archaeology. Take this example from the MiBAC introductory leaflet:

“…and to confirm the building currently to be seen was created as a single project defining its orientation and spatial distribution, following specific criteria of axiality and symmetry.”

My computer doesn’t even think “axiality” is a word at all, but I think I understand. The problem is, if I understand at all, its only because I’ve been hanging around with archaeologists quite a lot recently. And I don’t think this is a problem of poor translation from the Italian – the less jargon-y text is translated perfectly well. I think its evidence that the interpretation project could have benefited with a storyteller on the team.

I’m rushing off soon, so one final interesting note. The archaeological evidence shows that as the building fell into decline and disuse, it became a place to inter the dead. This is a practice that puzzles me and many fellow students on the Portus MOOC, yet it seems quite widespread. I wonder if the next iteration of the MOOC should explore this aspect even more…


PGRAS Southampton – Day 2 (there is no Day 1)

On Thursday, I attended the second day of the Archaeology department’s Postgraduate  symposium, at which every PhD student is expected to deliver an annual presentation on their research. Part timers like me are required to only present every other year, … Continue reading

On Thursday, I attended the second day of the Archaeology department’s Postgraduate  symposium, at which every PhD student is expected to deliver an annual presentation on their research. Part timers like me are required to only present every other year, so this time I was an audience member only, and Chair for one session. I hadn’t managed to go to the first day, because I was at work. Here are some selected personal highlights of the day.

Eleonora Gandolfini kicked the day off introducing her work on MOOCs, local communities and cultural heritage. She’s looking at how the global might become local to engage communities in the archaeology of what is close to them – for a start, she’s been creating text translations of our Portus MOOC into Italian. Here presentation included a couple of pleasant surprises for me: the first mention I’d heard that Portus has a past life as a safari park (which I’m sure wasn’t news to most of my peers), and a reference to, and display of, my virtual Lego model of Building 5!

Dan Joyce followed with a review at all the low-cost technology that can be used in archaeology, then Danielle Newman looked at using ethnographic techniques to interview archaeologists on public engagement. Her mention of the difficulties of how different professional communities using terminology differently struck a chord with me, interpretation, for example, is word that I and my archaeologist peers use very differently I think.

For example, Trevor Rowe talked about how Augmented Reality, which most people only think of as an not-quite-there-yet technology for interpreting the past to visitors, might be used to help archaeological interpretation of data while on site. Later in the day, when Elizabeth Richley was talking about her work combining different data sources in 3D, I wondered when her work would be combined with Trevor’s to create “Archaeologist Goggles.”

In the following session, the presentation that stood out for me and, it seemed, excited the room was Leah Holguin’s talk on Disappearing Landscapes of the Gobi Desert. It seemed a lot of people wanted to share her adventures, and I must admit, with all that sand and isolation, it felt like “real” Indiana Jones style, archaeology.

I chaired a session on walls, with Nicholas Dugdale skyping in to present his analysis of Roman marble shipping, Katherine Crawford and Isobel Pinder with two different takes on Roman religious processionals, and James Miles updating us on his structural analysis of Winchester Cathedral.

The final session ended with a really tough question for Peter Brugger who is researching the use of 3D printed versions of artefacts in museums. He was challenged with a question that amounted to “what’s the point?” After all, it doesn’t weight the same, or even feel the same, its by no means a replica – what is the learning outcome of a visitor interacting with it? But something he had said in his presentation made me think he already had the answer, that fiddling with the plastic version drew visitors’ attention to the real thing. So I wonder if its not an interpretive medium as such, but should be considered rather more like museum lighting, an atmospheric, sensory effect that help people understand where to look.

Well that’s a whistlestop tour of my notes from the day, there were plenty of other presentations as well, but I’m off to Italy shortly, so that’s all you get from me.


It’s easy… when you know how

It feels like I’ve spent the best part of four days learning Linux. Lets be specific (because I’ve discovered, you have to be specific), I’ve been learning the RedHat distro of Linux which does somethings differently to, for example, Ubunto. … Continue reading

It feels like I’ve spent the best part of four days learning Linux. Lets be specific (because I’ve discovered, you have to be specific), I’ve been learning the RedHat distro of Linux which does somethings differently to, for example, Ubunto. Oh, and I’ve been learning the Windows Command prompt syntax as well, all to get a Minecraft Portus up on to the University’s Minecraft server. As an arty-farty type who, after some BASIC in my schooldays, has been pretty exclusively a Mac user, my command line experience has seen me many times looking up into the afterlife whispering prayers of thanks to Saint Steve of Jobs. It was he who, in nicking the idea for a GUI (and drag-and-drop – oh all hail drag-and-drop!) from Xerox, saved most of us from the Hell of mis-typed commands and open source syntax (where for example, some commands use “-r” as an option to make the command recursive and other commands, quite arbitrarily it seems, scorn the lower case and only understand “-R” do do exactly the same thing).

The first day’s frustrations were all about getting the user permissions I needed to start tinkering. Some things worked, but other things were forbidden, and of course in my innocence I thought I was doing something wrong until I finally returned to the support line to find the administrator had mis-typed something in setting up my permissions.

Not that I blame him of course, I know how easy it is to mistype something. Readers of my blog have the evidence of that right in front of their eyes. But at least this blog uses actual words, not the contractions, acronyms and symbols so beloved of coders. Then there were three days of:

  • loading files up to the server, mostly using wget;
  • reading up of how to upload from Windows to the server, and deciding that acquiring and using the open source software, pscp, to do so sounded very, no, too complicated;
  • discovering that if they came from github where the most excellent Shawn Graham had published them, then what I was transfering wasn’t the file, but the web page that held it;
  • looking again at pscp, and again rejecting it;
  • toying with  the idea of getting to grips with Git, which seems like proper programmers, stuff, and instead deciding it would be easier to put the files on Dropbox and wget them from there;
  • learning how to unzip and archive in ssh, and puzzling over why there were two of everything (binary files I’m guessing);
  • trying to get one or other set of files (or a combination of both!) to work by changing the group and permissions to make them look like the ones in the default world (remember to use the recursive option when using chmod or chgrp on directories so that all the contained files also have their group and permissions changed);
  • trying to wget the directories and files direct and uncompressed from Dropbox, only to discover that process seems to change every file’s name slightly;
  • downloading pscp and discovering that wouldn’t open when double clicking on it (oh the innocence!), giving up;
  • trying to load Git on the server, discovering I didn’t have permission, and deciding the this was an arcane thing that no mortal man should know;
  • finally getting my head around opening pscp in Windows’ Command Prompt, setting a PATH for it so it would actually work (no I don’t know either, but it needs to be done, every time);
  • loving the way that paths are described with “\” on windows and “/” on Linux (and the web);
  • chmod and chgrping again (By this time I’m feeling quite the expert on these functions. Oh yes I can 775 with the best of them!);
  • all of the above with frequent restarts of minecraft_server.1.8.1.jar to see if what I had done worked (and discovering it didn’t);
  • accidentally deleting the actual minecraft_server.1.8.1.jar software (there’s no undo in a command line interface);
  • quickly restoring minecraft_server.1.8.1.jar using my new-found pscp skills;
  • restarting to find it still didn’t work
  • tweaking the name of the players directory (to playerstats as in the default world) and moving the region directory (which seemed to have some how escaped from the world directory, and restarting again; and,

Its works! Ha-lleh-bloomin’-lu-yah!

The Trajanic Basin from the roof of the Imperial Palace

The Trajanic Basin from the roof of the Imperial Palace

The lighthouse at night

The lighthouse at night

The hills behind Portus in the rain

The hills behind Portus in the rain

So what is it exactly? Well, its the work of a group of Shawn Graham’s students  “3rd year undergrad history class, but […] a mix of majors; none of them ancient historians” Shawn explained to me. According to their presentation, the intention was to recreate the life of a slave in Portus, by limiting the interactivity. I’m not sure whether that side of it is actually working in my version, as I seem to be be able to explore with complete freedom.

The model itself is based on these old archaeological (or maybe more appropriately, antiquarian) plans, most specifically  the ones by Canina. It looks pretty good even without the Romecraft texture pack, which the students used (and which I’ll install when my head stops hurting).

The server isn’t publicly available currently, but if you have a University of Southampton username, open a VPN with the university, fire up your copy of Minecraft, click on multiplayer, and seek out this world, which goes under the name of svr00978.soton.ac.uk.

It’s also worth checking out Shawn’s assignment to his students which, explains why they worked so hard to create this.

 


On Minecraft

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in which to start thinking about building Portus in Minecraft. A fortnight ago, after a consultation with my nine year old Minecraft expert, and some reading around the subject I was about to … Continue reading

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in which to start thinking about building Portus in Minecraft. A fortnight ago, after a consultation with my nine year old Minecraft expert, and some reading around the subject I was about to recommend Bukkit to my colleagues as as the best way to set up a custom server, perhaps using some Rome specific modifications and textures (more on those later).

But, having closed my browser and headed off to the Archaeologies of Media and Film conference in Bradford (more on that, maybe in another post), unknown to me Bukkit was being taken off the internet. So when I came to look for it the following week, I couldn’t find it. What seems to have happened in that two of the main developers of the software had managed ot get a job with Mojang, the creators of Minecraft. And what the rest of the community had only just discovered was that they had also sold Bukkit itself to Mojang. One of the other developers (it seems, according to this link) isn’t sure that everything has played out fairly, and has invoked the United States’ Digital Millenium Copyright Act, to have the software removed from public availability (and I guess to make things difficult for its new owners).

This of course was pretty concurrent with hearing that Microsoft was interested in purchasing Mojang, and I wondered whether Mojang recruiting the Bukkit team was to make themselves more attractive to Microsoft. I think I was right in that speculation, because earlier this week Microsoft’s purchase was officially announced, along with the news that Notch, the main developer of Minecraft, and two partners were leaving the company. I wish them well in their future endevours, and hope they enjoy spending their share of the very impressive reported price.

So, where will Minecraft go now? Some have been quick to portend doom and gloom, but I prefer to wait and see.

Now back to Portus. We’re not the first to think about creating ancient Roman civilizations in Minecraft. Romecraft is an ever expanding community/set of projects with similar aims,  they’ve already produced texture packs for “Germania,” “Roma” and “Aegyptus”, and built two role-play Minecraft Servers, and right now there is a project going on to recreate Pompeii.

I think I need to try and recruit them to the next run of the Portus MOOC...


From Roman Portus to Medieval Bodiam – virtually

Today I had a meeting with brothers Joe and Ken Rigby. We met in a faux-medieval world, of the sort familiar to players of Skyrim, World of Warcraft and many (many) others. I’d arrived as a woman, so Joe helped … Continue reading

Today I had a meeting with brothers Joe and Ken Rigby. We met in a faux-medieval world, of the sort familiar to players of Skyrim, World of Warcraft and many (many) others. I’d arrived as a woman, so Joe helped me find a more masculine avatar, then a quick tutorial in walking, running, flying with a rocket-pack, and we were off exploring.

Joe is convinced there’s a market in building historic environments in the Unreal engine, and he and Ken have built a few proof-of-concept environments, including (and of particular interest to me) building five at Portus, and Bodiam Castle.

Once I was comfortable manipulating my avatar, Ken replaced the game-world we were in, and loaded Portus on the server. Joe and Ken got a model of building five from my colleagues at Southampton, and put it on a model of the Trajanic basin. Walking through it (or rather directing my avatar while we talked) I was immediately impressed by the sense of scale, if not by the somewhat oppressive sky texture they chose.  We talked about how, with enough server space, you could invite a lecture group to the model, and talk about the research and interpretation behind it while leading a group of avatars around it.

Here’s a video walkthrough Joe made previously:

Of course I was thinking about the Portus MOOC – but immediately I could think of challenges. For a start the environment sits on a sort of commercial virtual world server run by US telecoms company Avaya.  Joe explained they had a very reasonable price-plan, for smaller meetings. But even though in theory 2000 people could visit at once, Joe said the server fees would be prohibitively expensive. On top of that of course, MOOCs are inherently asynchronous, so without huge amounts of planning, many people would miss out, and possibly feel deprived. But regardless I asked whether the lecturer could change the appearance of the models as s/he  discussed the various theories behind them. After a bit of thought Joe said, although the models themselves couldn’t change on the fly, they could build a sort of “TARDIS” (yay, Doctor Who back tomorrow) that could transport the group between a number of models, or (obviously) through time to show different stages of Portus’ development.

Then we went to Bodiam, and arrived in the courtyard of a Bodiam Castle far less ruined than the one I know. Joe explained that they had a model of the Great (dining) Hall, created by a PhD student, and were thinking about how to build a simple model of the Castle around it, when the found exactly the model they were looking for on-line, available for £50. So that’s what we explored, but the only detailed interior was the Great Hall.

I must admit, though the smoothness of the experience was a lot more accessible than, say, Second Life (though maybe that’s because of the speed of my Broadband) I can’t think of a sustainable business model for environments like this. Build it and (maybe) they will come, but beyond these experiments, where is the reward for building it? Will visitors pay to visit a virtual Bodiam, or would they prefer to go to the real thing? Would my organisation (the National Trust) pay to have a virtual Bodiam accurately modelled? Who for?

Millions  of people (probably) have paid to tour a virtual medieval Florence in Assassins’ Creed, but they came mostly for the killing and the treasure – Florence itself was a pleasant extra.

I DO think virtual environments like this could benefit things like the Portus MOOC, but MOOCs ain’t cash cows… and Second Life lies in (relative) ruins, as do many other Virtual world platforms.

This one is free to visit though, and Ken and Joe have agreed to leave Portus on it for a while. Make sure Flash is up to date and click on this link to visit. You’ll need to download an Avaya extension, but its a painless process. If you see anyone there, wave by pressing the 1 key on your keyboard, and if you have a microphone attached, talk to them.