Rationale for Virtual Reality (VR) Technology

The term "virtual reality" is by no means one with an agreed upon definition. On its most basic level, VR promises that, by means of some form of digital technology, a physical experience can be simulated in the "virtual" space created in the digital environment. Conceptually, VR has been around for dozens of years, and has sparked anticipation and speculation ranging from the most optimistic extreme of eventually living in virtual worlds, to anxious preservationism of the "real" experience, to everything in between.

What interests the producers of the Dickinson Electronic Archives are developments in desktop virtual reality-experiences created for users sitting at a personal computer rather than entering a separate physical space or donning any specialized VR equipment. The type of historical research we're proposing (including the connections between the historicity surrounding the Dickinsons and the actual writings of Emily, Susan, and others), along with the textual and editorial work with which the DEA is already involved, is most easily delivered via the desktop, either through the Internet or by some other personal computer environment. This is not to say that other forms of VR are not intriguing to literary or historical studies; the Virtual Harlem project, for example, is based upon immersive VR technology where users visit a physical space that constructs a surrounding environment modeled upon Harlem of the 1920s and 30s (complete with sights, sounds, smells, etc.). Equipment facilitated VR (the use of gloves, headsets, etc.) and Image Mapping VR (where a digital camera aids in casting the user's image into a digitized scene) also have their upsides, yet do not speak to the crux of what we are trying to uncover through the use of VR technology.

Which leads to the next question: What, then, are we trying to uncover? As mentioned in the introduction to the DEA, there is an undeniable connection between Emily Dickinson's writings and the physicality of her writing experience. We have already begun the goal of exploring the most overt traces of her writing process—her manuscripts and their significance in both reality and digital representation. In other words, we have begun by examining the products of her actual writing, and in doing so hope to put some sense of time and dimension back into the reading of them. Arguably, there are two other aspects of physicality that are influential in the Dickinson acts of writing—physical space and physical objects that surrounded her while scripting her manuscripts—or to put it another way, the most literal context surrounding her artistic process and products.

Exploring space and object, connecting them with manuscript and text, we make use of the same desktop environment through which thousands of scholars, students, and poetry lovers already experience the DEA—through the Internet. Yet we hope to make the experience of studying Dickinson spaces and objects dynamic and interactive, because of the nature of the transmitted information. In doing so, we have two specific ultimate goals:

  • To represent in as close to a 3D space as possible, the interior and exterior of Emily Dickinson's house (The Homestead), the house of her brother and sister (The Evergreens), and the grounds and gardens surrounding the two dwellings. This will have two facets:
    a) use of Digital Video images and Quicktime Virtual Reality Panoramic technology (see "The Virtual Louvre" for an example, and The Learning Alliance's brief tour of QTVR panoramas for more detail on the technology) to allow users to move through represented Dickinson space, clicking on objects of interest in order to get a close up view, zooming in or out at will, and rotating their perspective in order to feel "within" the spaces that gave rise to Dickinson's textual creations, and b) use of VR technology (possibilities range from the more simplistic Adobe Atmosphere to the type of complex constructions allowed through VRML-Virtual Reality Modeling Language. See "The Crystal Palace" at the IATH for an example and introduction to VRML) to develop a digitally native representation of the Dickinson Landscapes.
    This will provide a continuum of experience for users—the actual, physical houses existing in museum form in Amherst, Massachusetts on one end, architectural, spatial, and object-oriented digital creations on the other, and video-representation mediating between the two.
  • As technology allows for deeper and more structured creations of textual objects in encoded form (through the development of the Text Encoding Initiative and through Extensible Language Markup protocols), we are postulating that visual, tactile, and aural information can be encoded in the same way. The virtual rooms as we see them will become much more than a visual walkthrough of The Dickinson Homestead or The Evergreens; it will serve as a digital repository with its own structural composition, housing digitally encoded and marked-up objects. This "multimedia museum" would contain within its structure a mass of information, in database format allowing search and retrieval, about composition, history, significance, and relationships, of both objects and spaces, the amount of which is limited only by our own capabilities to encode and tag them. Such a creation would, again, not replace nor subsume the physical structures--which provide vital scholarly research and information as well as public pleasure--but would profoundly expound upon them. We also feel that exploring the possibilities of knowledge production and transmission through multimedia objects would yield invaluable results in terms of actual preservation of the objects themselves and their contextual information.

The DEA Virtual Landscapes project plans to begin with a "sample" room—The Evergreens Library— to show what can be done in representing space and the objects inhabiting that space (in this case, the extensive library left by Susan Dickinson and Martha Dickinson Bianchi). From this initial room, we hope to proceed collaboratively with the curators of the houses to complete the entire structures. Ultimately, we are envisioning the "Virtual Dickinson Landscapes" to become another archive-their own type of archive, disseminating and augmenting what is standing in Amherst today.

Last updated on November 11, 2002
Maintained by Rebecca Mooney <rnmooney@umd.edu >