I’ve been greatly inspired by Bob Stone’s work here at Birmingham, particularly in how he and his team make reconstructions of historic landscapes for use in virtual reality. I’ll confess to having been a bit frustrated over the last few years because I could think of a whole lot of different projects I could do with this technology, but haven’t had the skill to do it myself.
As a result, one of the tasks I set myself for the first quarter of 2019 was to learn a bit of Unity. For those who don’t know, Unity is a games engine, a piece of software that allows you to make video games of your own design. Although its higher functions require some skill at coding, Unity comes with a whole load of readymade code ‘prefabs’ from which you can build a game with little or no programming expertise.
My friend and collaborator Tess Osborne has said she needs to get a T-shirt that just reads “Have you tried Googling it” to wear when teaching undergraduate IT classes. This is the approach I took to learning the very basics of Unity – skimming through other people’s blogs, messageboard posts and YouTube videos to find answers to different challenges I encountered along the way. I can’t imagine anyone would be interested in the details of this (you can drop me a line if you are) so I’m going to concentrate here on the outputs.
I’ve done two small projects thus far: Germania and I have a dream. Both are very different expressions of how grand, triumphal cityscapes can be thought about. They currently exist as developer-only models for use in the Oculus Go – a portable, standalone headset that does not need to be tethered to a powerful computer.
Germania was the name for Hitler’s planned redevelopment of Berlin, intended to be completed following the victory of Germany in WW2. A truly massive complex of new buildings in a stripped-down classical style would have been assembled on a north-south axis through the heart of the existing city. The crowning glory was to have been the Volkshalle, a 290 metre tall domed building. The ludicrous scale of this development is hard to put across. I’ve borrowed a pre-existing digital model of part of the planned development, rescaled and fiddled with it and put it into a navigable landscape in VR. My colleague Lloyd Jenkins has been in Berlin this week with the students, standing in the location close to the Reichstag where the Volkshalle would have been built in the real Berlin. They’ve had a go at standing in the real landscape while navigating the virtual landscape of the unbuilt project to get a sense of the sheer scale of that unbuilt plan and what that says about the mentality that underpinned its design.
We’ll be using the Germania model next week as part of an AAG workshop organised by Tess along with Danielle Drozdzewski and Jacque Micieli-Voutsinas. Participants will stand in the National Mall in Washington DC, giving them the opportunity to contrast Hitler’s vision in the VR headset with the material reality of one of the landscapes that inspired his architect Albert Speer. This will allow participants to examine questions of scale and intimidation in the architecture of dictatorship as well as to reflect on the spatial qualities of the 1902 McMillan Plan for Washington DC.
I’ve also built a simplified recreation of the National Mall for VR that will allow workshop participants to stand in a virtual Mall listening to Martin Luther King giving his I have a dream speech. Again, the idea is to reflect on the difference between physical and virtual presence in the real present and an imagined past.
It’s been quite fun working out some of these ideas – Tess and I have been asked to write some of this up for a forthcoming book emerging from next week’s workshop. It’s also been a useful process in thinking through what some of the possibilities for using this technology in teaching and research can be – I’m a great believer in learning by doing. Even if I’m never going to be an expert in the use of these technologies, learning the basics is a great way to have meaningful conversations with potential collaborators over much more sophisticated applications.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer