Today, I stood on top of a giant pumpkin in the middle of a mountain range. I was a gnome, a pirate, a tube of toothpaste, and a carrot. Today was my first day in virtual reality.
As one of the two Graduate Fellows in Digital Humanities at the Scholars’ Lab, I am working on a digital component to my dissertation research on the Garden Dining Spaces in ancient Pompeii. Over the next several months, with the help of Arin Bennet and Will Rourk (and likely some others), I will build and reconstruct three of these dining spaces in 3D and virtual reality. The purpose of the project is to document sites that are vulnerable to erosion and degradation, to enhance my research and understanding of these spaces, to create a useful tool for teaching (now especially important given the pandemic and current remote learning structure), and to simply enjoy the creative and immersive process.
I didn’t quite know what to expect of my first day working in virtual reality. I was a little nervous. I am not a gamer and am not at all dexterous with a controller. I had only experienced virtual reality once, two years ago when I visited the Domus Aurea in Rome. Part of the tour of the subterranean remains of Nero’s massive, urban villa included a 3D reconstruction of the villa and surrounding gardens, experienced in virtual reality. It was an awesome experience, for sure. It did not prepare me, however, for seeing and walking through spaces, that I have carefully documented and studied for years, in virtual reality.
As soon as the OBJ file loaded in the virtual world, and I got to stand in one of my gardens, I blurted out to Arin (my virtual reality guide), “I don’t think you understand.” Sure, the 3D models (made from thousands of photos I took on site in 2018) were not perfect, but I could not get over how real and visceral it felt to stand in these spaces without traveling to Italy. Perhaps this feeling was made more poignant because of the current Covid-19 pandemic. 2020 was the first year in about a decade that I had not traveled to Italy and to Pompeii during the summer months to work. When May came around, and we were still in lockdown, I found myself mentally shifting for travel to Italy. I started to crave the coffee from Bar Sgambati at Pompeii’s train station. I tried to mentally conjure the aroma that always greeted me when I disembarked from the plane at Fiumicino Airport. I missed speaking and hearing a language that is both foreign and familiar. And, I reminisced about the annual pilgrimages I made to particular neighborhoods, gelaterie, and nooks and crannies around Rome.
Today was day one. There is plenty to do to reconstruct the spaces and to properly contextualize and situate them in space. If this was my reaction today, I can’t wait experience the final product.