Tuesday, August 4, 2009

3-D modelling and the future of virtual museums

Wandering through a 3-D representation of "Fallingwater"
in the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum of SL

I am intrigued by SL's potential as a means for creating and presenting innovative exhibits: the platform offers opportunities for museums and individuals to experiment with concepts that someday could contribute to the evolution of new approaches to presenting exhibitions. I have hopes that these new approaches could enable museums to engage expanded audiences and perhaps even avoid descending further along the path to irrelevance. So far, some interesting steps have been taken, including a recent new arrival on the SL museum landscape, the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum of SL in Dilemma City.

Whenever I hear about some new museum or exhibition popping up in SL, sooner or later, I drag myself over to have a look. I had been reading about the FLW installation for a little while and finally decided to go see it. Mind you, I have a love-hate relationship with museums, both in meatspace and in-world. I love the idea of what museums can be and what they can do. And I usually hate actually going to them and wading through the poor execution of what a museum can be.

In fact, I am a terrible museum goer. I always refuse to follow the path that the exhibit designer was trying to make me follow, I don't like reading labels, and most attempts at high-tech interactives just irritate the fuck out of me.

I like a museum that lets you get a close look at great artifacts or art within a context, that tells stories well, that transports or immerses you in another time and place, and/or that has well-trained friendly, intelligent, LIVE people for you to interact with.

Cats are good too (although the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West is the only museum I've seen that really pulled that one off successfully).

Anyhow, ever since JJ Drinkwater at the Caledon Library pioneered the 2-D panel/notecard-and-link giver style of SL exhibition, various groups and individuals have taken small steps in advancing the concept of virtual exhibits further. An area that holds perhaps some of the greatest potential, of course, is immersion exhibits. You can try telling your story with 2-D panels and text on the walls of your virtual exhibit space, but it lacks the impact of telling that story within a three-dimensional recreation of a structure, an historical or literary environment, or even another world.

There are some immersion environments in SL that work pretty well. I think Deadwood is one, of course, although it is more or less "inspired" by the historical town, rather than being an accurate, literal recreation of the actual historical built environment. With its people and the detail it encompasses, it can give you a certain "feel" of the historical environment. But the realities of sim size, prim limits, accommodating vendors and residents, and the limited availability of detailed information about the actual historical environment necessarily impose limitations on detail, scale, and appearance.

Consequently, I was interested in seeing the FLW museum, because I understood it included some good three-dimensional recreations of some of his most important designs. I wanted to see how it worked. And once I got there, and found my way past the initial conventional exhibit elements with big pictures and some relatively uninformative notecards, I thought it worked ok.

There a number of structures including Fallingwater (pictured above) and the wonderful Robie House. These recreations appear to be based very closely on the actual structures in terms of scale, detail and layout. It would seem that the actual plans were used in creating the representations of the structures. And other than feeling like you are standing in a series of sterile models, rather than walking through living architectural environments, it was kind of cool being able to stroll about the Robie House and peek in the closets (which were empty of course) and explore the various levels of Fallingwater. I tried to imagine people living in these houses -- cooking breakfast and dressing for cocktails with elegant friends -- but it was kind of hard to do so. They just lacked life. There was no story being told.

And that's ok, because after all, this was an experiment. Everything we are doing in this silly world is still an experiment, and each experiment is usually just one piece of the puzzle. But I will say that I think the curators of this three-dimensional show certainly succeeded in taking the plans of these architectural masterpieces and translating them into a more engaging form than the 2-D plans would have been.

I won't even get into the issue of whether or not the creators of this exhibition covered the necessary bases in getting permission to reproduce FLW's buildings, or if they even really had to do so. I have no idea what they did in the legal department and it's not really something I give a rat's ass about one way or the other right now. Nor will I get into some of the issues about scale -- I assume they made the buildings to a realistic scale, which of course leads to some problems with SL avatars (most of whom, if transposed to rl, would be over seven feet tall and possessed of shoulders, breasts and other body parts of outsized dimensions that won't fit through accurately scaled doorways). But I will say that I believe that the folks who built this installation took an interesting step here.

Now the next step is to take this accurate recreation of structures and environments, and marry it to the lively storytelling and detailed furnishings and accessories of a Deadwood. Then I think we're going to see something in-world that will genuinely advance the cause of virtual museums.


  1. Hmmm, ill have to go check that place out now *smiles*

  2. it's worth looking at Caed -- as a skilled builder, you will probably find it pretty interesting

  3. Hey Caed, I would be interested to see what you think about the scale issue -- the buildings seem kind of claustrophobic, which may just be the nature of FLW designs, I don't know, the only real life FLW house I was ever in was so buggered up inside, that it was hard to tell what it would have felt like in its original form.

    I remember when a really nice recreation of the Globe theater was built on Renaissance island, the builder scaled it up to accommodate your standard issue 7-foot tall avatars and keep them from bumping their fool heads on door frames, but it looked sort of "off" because of being oversized

  4. I'll go too, but I think the problem with "real" buildings in SL is that of the follow cam - it cuts into walls and the like in a way that makes the space seem much smaller.

  5. I think it depends on the design, HB. But anyhow, I'd be curious to hear what you think of the FLW museum after you go see it.