Virtual Worlds Avatars and the Future

AVATARA (2003)
by 536 (Donato Mancini, Jeremy Turner,
with Patrick “Flick” Harrison)

It was with much happiness that I discovered this morning that Avatara is now streamed online. Avatara is a full length documentary on a community that is based in the virtual online world of DigitalSpace Traveler. The film is a fascinating account of how networks can be built in virtual worlds (more about it here). The Traveler community has been in existence since 1993, making it one of the earliest such groups in a shared online virtual world. Today 3D online worlds like Second Life, Meez, Twintity, Lively, Eve and so many more are taking up an increasing amount of time in the lives of millions of people. Looking at the Avatara film provides an insight into the communicative and social value of such media.

The educational value of virtual worlds is another subject close to my heart and it is shaping up to be a dynamic topic for the coming Fall term in HUMlab. There will be two courses taught next term that will included sessions in, and use of, the HUMlab Island in Second Life. These are the Digital Culture and Technology course and a Museum Studies course. The Island itself has been active over the summer break with Oz (who features heavily in the Avatara documentary) working on a number of projects. As well the Virtual Sustainable Communities project is continuing and the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse has been practicing. I have recently made contact with author, digital media and culture critic and theorist Mark Meadows in Second Life (Mark was in HUMlab in 2003). His recent book I Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life is a sound introduction to the cultures and practices of the present day Second Life community.

digital humanities again

I have recently started to write about the digital humanities again – more specifically I am working on the second article in a series of three. Preliminary title: “The landscape of the Digital Humanities”. The first one is called “From humanities computing to digital humanities”. I hope to finish it by the end of this summer.

I could not attend the Digital Humanities conference in June even though Oulu is not too far from here, and I have tried to find some information on blogs etc., But I have not been able to find a whole lot. I guess it may be too early.

Trying to remember sources I have seen the last couple of months and including a few I found doing some googling today:

This report on DH2008 comes from Michael Sperberg-McQueen:

There were a lot of good papers this year, and I don’t have time to go through them all here, since I’m supposed to be getting ready to catch the airport bus. So I hope to do a sort of fragmented trip report in the form of followup posts on a number of projects and topics that caught my eye. A full-text XML search engine I had never heard of before (TauRo, from the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa), bibliographic software from Brown, and a whole long series of digital editions and databases are what jump to my mind now, in my haste.

The full entry can be found here.

This blog entry on digital humanities by Darren James Harkness predates the DH2008 conference and discusses the perceived textual dominance of digital humanities:

I started my MA in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta in 2003. It sounded like an interesting program (and, thanks to my profs it was) at the time. I quickly learned, however, that one of the things computing humanists are most interested in is text analysis. Word counts, concordances, keywords in context, tagging… everyone’s focused on what we can do when we mix up words and silicon. We spent a fair amount of time learning about technologies: XML, statistics programs, GIS, text analysis portals, and the like.


It’s just as apparent today how deeply the digital humanities field is mired in text analysis and text visualization. Looking at the SDH/SEMI program, the bulk of the papers cover these two fields, and DH2008 is almost solely dedicated to the topic. The programs are full of titles like “The Margins of an Infinite Page: Paratext Display in Digital Online Editions”, “The pragmatics of a thesaurus-based multilingual information retrieval system”, and “Feature Creep: Evaluating feature sets for text mining literary corpora”.


We need to start rocking the boat, shaking the tree – whatever epithet works best for you – and start pushing our own research interests. There is a lot of work to be done in studying digital culture and literature, and it isn’t going to get done through metadata or cluster diagrams alone.

I also found a recent report from CLIR: “A Survey of Digital Humanities Centers in the United States” (only as a word document). I have not had time to look at it carefully, but I will read it over the next couple of weeks. Interesting stuff. This is the definition of a digital humanities center:

A digital humanities center is an entity where new media and technologies are used for humanities-based research, teaching, and intellectual engagement and experimentation. The goals of the center are to further humanities scholarship, create new forms of knowledge, and explore technology’s impact on humanities-based disciplines. To accomplish these goals, a digital humanities center undertakes some or all of the following activities:

  • Builds digital collections as scholarly or teaching resources
  • Creates tools for: authoring (i.e., creating multimedia products and applications with minimal technical knowledge or training), building digital collections, analyzing humanities collections, data, or research processes, managing the research process
  • Uses “digital collections and analytical tools to generate new intellectual products”
  • Offers digital humanities training (in the form of workshops, courses, academic degree programs, postgraduate and faculty training, fellowships, and internships)
  • Offers lectures, programs, conferences, or seminars on digital humanities topics for general or academic audiences
  • Has its own academic appointments and staffing (i.e., staffing does not rely solely on faculty located in another academic department)
  • Provides collegial support for, and collaboration with, members of other academic departments at the DHC’s home institution
  • Provides collegial support for, and collaboration with, members of other academic departments, organizations, or projects outside the DHC’s home institution
  • Conducts research in humanities and humanities computing (digital scholarship)
  • Creates a “zone of experimentation and innovation” for humanists
  • Serves as an information portal for a particular humanities discipline
  • Serves as a repository for humanities-based digital collections (e.g., Web sites, electronic text projects, QuickTime movie clips, etc.)
  • Provides technology solutions to humanities departments (e.g., serves an IT role for humanities departments).

It is obvious that this defintion has a fairly strong library science and humanities computing focus. Information technology and the digital humanities are largely (but not only) given an instrumental role.

Finally, I am also going to look at Jeffrey Schnapp’s and Michael Shanks’s article “Artereality: rethinking art as craft in a knowledge economy” again. Recommended reading.

collaboration with LTU Skellefteå

For some time now, HUMlab and the game programs at Luleå Technical University in Skellefteå (North of here) have been planning collaboration. I am excited about this as I think Umeå University and LTU complement each other well in relation to the ‘digital’. When visiting Skellfteå I was very impressed with their facilities and the mix of analogue and digital.  They have a TV and film production design program as well as a computer game development program and a computer graphics program. Their students seem to very good, and the group Arrowhead recently won the Game of the year award with their Magicka at the Swedish Game Awards 2008.


See here for a showreel from 2008 students.

being spatially situated

Two weeks ago the final review  of our two-year EU-funded project QVIZ took place in HUMlab. Sometimes these reviews take place in Luxembourg or Brussels, but we were very happy to host the review on site. The way these things typically work is that you have a rehearsal day before the actual review, and this time we used some external people to act as reviewers at the reherseal session. Everything had to be ready by the morning of the reherseal, and we were. We needed time in the evening to make adjustments etc., but the bulk of the work had already been done when we got together in the morning. We had put all the presentations together in one, large powerpoint file (some 150 slides) the week before. The mock review was a very useful exercise.

In terms of innovations (apart from the large powerpoint file), we also used a structural work package slide that reoccured three times for every wp presentation (one version showing interdependencies). Also, we used two screens at the actual review. The large screen was used as a main presentation screen and the smaller screen was used to show the objectives for each work package and for some other presentations. This setup worked really well I think.

photo from the rehearsal session

There is something to having a multi-purpose studio space like HUMlab. I think being in the space where much of the Umeå based work in QVIZ contributed to the review. Also, there were other things going on in the space at the same time, and HUMlab is full of traces of the QVIZ projects as well as other projects. 

I counted the number of laptops at the actual review and I think there were 15 laptops around the table. 

The review went really well, and everyone is happy about the results of the projects and the massive effort we have done since last year. The consortium has worked well together (there is a strong collaborative sentiment) and partners have contributed very different competences, epistemic committments and interests.  A clear strength has also been the main role played by the archives involved in the project: the Swedish National Archive and the National Archive of Estonia. All in all, the project has been a great learning experience, and we are looking forward to continued and new European collaboration. I strongly feel that Europe-based networks and project present a  very significant possibility for HUMlab in allowing us to be involved in processes and results that could not be achived on a national level or even internationally without very significant funding and collaborative push.