Archive for the ‘Phase 2 progress (current)’ Category


October 10, 2012

Another week, another school. This afternoon Nic and I have been down at St Mary Redcliffe School ( to meet the Head of History there.

We had an excellent meeting talking about the project, trialling it there and, more importantly, about the ways in which we might develop it in the future to meet the needs of schools. This idea of working with teachers to develop the model into a long-term, sustainable and flexible teaching space has been growing since the summer. The creation of a virtual space in which Bristol school students could work together between schools on various aspects of Victorian or Roman history is an exciting prospect.

In the meantime, back in 2012 on the impact trail, we talked about shaping a project that would develop over several off-timetable sessions with selected Year 9 students, with the probable outcome of asking them at the end to use what they have learned through the project to guide Year 7s (who are studying the Romans) around the house. This way, we can get qualitative feedback from both year groups, reporting back on different modes of experiencing the model and both we and the staff at SMRT can observe the students’ engagement and use that as a platform from which to shape possible collaborations in future years. Working over several sessions, we can grant the students enough time to ‘play’ in/with the model, work with their avatars and absorb the ideas we are presenting through the model and the activities we’ll be devising for and with them.

One of the particular aspects of history-learning that the Head of History was concerned with was that of interpretation. Students easily grasp facts and narratives but find more analytical and critical approaches more difficult to conceptualise and adopt. In particular, his concerns and ours best met around what lies at the core of our model, the demonstration of constant re-invention of the historic past through successive generations of it.

Getting out into schools and having these kinds of conversations is really exciting. Although each school has a slightly different objective, we are really beginning to see the ways in which the model and the techniques we use to enliven it could impact upon teaching practice in the schools around us and have a very real effect on the ways in which students understand their relationship with the past.



October 2, 2012

As the school term progresses, the number of schools getting involved steadily rises.  We have had 2 more schools make enquiries this week and most excitingly, we have fixed the date for our first trial: 5th November at Red Maids. We have a 90 minute session with 79 students. This will be a brilliant opportunity to get some very useful feedback data. The school’s computer suites have capacity for 56, so this could also provide Nic with a load test bigger than he has ever dreamed of! I have serious doubts that Open Sim will cope so we’ll be planning a blended session, in which groups of students are engaged in different activities at different times.

Thank you so much to Red Maids for agreeing to take part.



September 14, 2012

Our good news for this week is that we have another school interested in working on the project with us: Fairfield High in Bristol. History students there study Romans in Year 7 and Victorian Britain in Year 8 so the themes of our model should prove and excellent way of binding those topics together.

Alos this week, the editors of the  book on the Sydenham Crystal Palace to which we are contributing let us know that they liked our essay. Writing the essay was nightmarish but very enlightening. One of the things we havebeen trying to achieve with our model and its environment is to experiment with alternative ways of doing and presenting research (i.e. alternative to the academic norms of writing books or articles). Of course, though, in order to get people to consider and evaluate our work we need to draw attention to it and that means engaging with the standard modes of communication and conversation, and that inevitably means publishing. Writing up our initial reflections on the project, however, proved to be incredibly difficult – how to describe or ‘translate’ something in(to) text that was never intended to have a linear narrative? We eventually ended up trying to duplicate the experience of visiting the model – presenting the paper as a guided tour from room to room, using descriptions of sights or encounters in each room to trigger a reflection or analysis on themes raised by them. The difficulties we have had are not (just) about our own shortcominhgs as writers but, I think, about the ways in which virtual worlds and their use in scholarship might challenge the orthodoxy of academic presentation, not just on their own patch (i.e. in-world) but in the attempt to circumscribe them in text.


September 5, 2012


I had a phonecall from Ken Kiss today who runs the Crystal Palace Museum ( on the edge of the Palace Park. He has kindly agreed to let us install a showreel featuring our model in the museum. because the technology is just too complicated, visitors won’t be able to tour the model with their own avatar as they can online. Instead we’ll be producing a DVD featuring flythroughs, cameo performances from our ‘bot avatars etc. which will play on a loop. It will be great to feel that the Pompeian Court is almost back home – its ‘real’ physical location was just behind what is now the bus station, not so very far from the location of the museum (in a building that was once a classroom for the Palace’s engineering school).

More importantly, Ken has been supportive of our project from the start and we’re going to meet up with him in a few weeks to draw on his knowledge of the Palace superstructure and the archive material in the collection. Although, of course, we did use the standard Palace scales in mapping out our model it is currently conceived as an independent entity and it will be fascinating to see how Nic’s architectural model fits in with the realities of the larger architectural environment.


August 22, 2012

Today we met with David Burden of Daden (, a company that specialises in immersive visualisations for training and education purposes. We are hoping to work together on a bid to win some research money to develop the sophistication of robot avatars in virtual worlds. David has some fantastic ideas about ways in which we could utilise ‘bots. Of course, the ideas we are developing involve sophisticated technology but primarily we are interested not in what the technology can do but in thinking about how to use that technology most creatively to meet the needs of our users.

We will be drafting the bid next spring, so our immediate task is to make sure that we use this year’s school trials as a means to explore how our current limited ‘bots engage school students, what of their capabilities we should be prioritising and what aspects of their interaction offers the most fertile field for further development.


August 2, 2012

Today we had an excellent meeting with two local History teachers to discuss trialling our model in their schools. In chatting about the what aspects of our model might best benefit their students, a key copncern was really helping students gain a ‘sense of period’, to grasp not only chronological distance and its effects (though this was a factor and, of all our representational tricks, the walkable time-line, which is extremely lo-fi – just a sequence of bill boards featuring ppt slides of major historical events leading back to 1854 alongside the road visitors have to walk to reach the model in OpenSim – was immediately recognised as something useful) but environment and attititudes which informed events and reactions to them.

What was most exciting about talking to teachers from different schools was the opportunity it presented to start thinking about the worth of our virtual environment, and the Crystal Palace itself, as a mode for bringing together History topics, students and staff. The Crystal Palace offers so many possibilities for exploration of the kind of themes favoured by school History curricula (Industrial Revolution, Empire etc), and the virtual world can bring those issues together to show how they intersect as well as placing them within the wider context of physical architecture and social attitudes, as voiced by our ‘bots. And although the Pompeian Court may not seem the most immediately obvious part of the Palace in which to play out these kinds of topics, it’s certainly the case that guide-book writers (both those employed by the Palace and by independent publishers) understood this Court and the culture it represented as a product of the Roman imperial system.

We should be running trials with both teachers later in the year and we’re really looking forward to further conversations about how this kind of project could work in a school setting. Thanks so much to Richard and Andy for sparing us time in the holidays.


July 10, 2012

Here we are ready to go again! Having marked the start of our break with such fanfare back in November, by burning down our Second Life model, Nic and I went for a tentative start, roping in friends from around the place to stress test our new Open Sim server. When we ran our school trial before the break, the combination of the school’s poor network and the US-based server caused us real problems – avatars failed to load, were booted out and were hard to control. Our new Bristol virtual server seemed to cope better and although avatars took 2 minutes to load on other people’s screens, nobody had any lag with movement. The test is hardly conclusive as we were using our own university wireless network, which is a lot more high spec than that run in most schools, but it was a good start. There does seem to be a glitch with the bots, which we were worried was a sign of system overload but Nic has since tested them and it seems we have some work-around solutions. My only immediate worry is that Gwendoline seems to have lost her skirt somewhere – very unlady-like and I shudder to think what she’s up to while I’ve been away…


January 3, 2012

We are taking a break from our project for the next few months because of long-term leave from work. We will be back in action in June.


December 2, 2011

So – we did it. The fire went off pretty well – we set the fire at 8pm GMT on Nov 30th and watched the model burn in the dark. Our flames came from Apricot Flames and were brilliant – great visual and audio effects and Nic created some charred textures. The Court looked beautiful in the flames and it all seemed a fitting send off. Thank you to everybody who came to mark the moment and thanks, in particular, to the guest who thought to bring marshmallows on sticks which went well with the champagne we served at the end of the event! The event was recorded so we hope to have some footage up soon.

For additional comment on Linden Labs’ decision to scrap their educational discount and our fire, see



November 27, 2011

Our plans for burning down our Second Life Pompeian Court are now well underway. We have acquired some amazing flames from Apricot Flames in SL and Nic is working on some charred textures. The ceremony will be brief and low key but should look pretty good. All are very welcome to join us at 8pm (GMT) on Wednesday 30 November.


October 20, 2011

This week, I taught my 3rd year undergraduates in the model and decided to use Second Life rather than Open Sim. We came over all nostalgic when we went in to prepare the class before the students arrived. Our island looks great and represents all our early efforts. Unfortunately, the lease on our island is about to expire and, particularly given Linden Labs’ withdrawal of the educational rate, we just can’t afford to keep it. So it looks like our SL model will be another casualty in the evr-growing list of unsustainable virtual world projects… unless we can turn imminent obsolescence into a virtue. Typically, never ones to give up without a fight we have a plan to turn the situation into a celebration – we are aiming to burn down our model on the anniversary of the Crystal Palace fire which destroyed the ‘real’ Pompeian Court in 1936. For the last few weeks of our island’s existence, visitors will see the smouldering ruins of what had been our model. ‘Better to burn out than to fade away’…!


October 10, 2011

A new academic year and I have my list of objectives for the project for this year:

1. Get another school pilot project going.

2. Make the model accessible by DVD in and around the Crystal Palace area.

3. More publication activity to disseminate our findings.

4. Work up our bid for funding to increase the complex behaviour of our ‘bots.

First up is sprucing up our website with some introductory videos so this week’s task is stopryboarding (good practice for the DVD).  Look out for Gwendoline and Lucien chatting on our homepage very soon!


October 10, 2011

Today, a few days late, I sent off an abstract for a chapter about our project to go into the volume that Sarah Turner and Kate Nichols at York are proposing as a result of their ‘What’s to be done with the Crystal Palace’ workshop back in the early summer. I hope they like our abstract because I’d love our project to be in the volume. Our chapter is called, ‘A copy – or rather a translation…with numerous sparkling emendations.’ Re-rebuilding the Crystal Palace. In it we will (well, we say we will – abstract writing is a doddle – you can promise all sorts of things!) explore the relationships between the Palace’s reconstruction and that of virtual modelling. In particular, I want to focus on the ways in which the same academic distate for the ‘fake’ which rather killed off scholarly interest in the Sydenham Palace, has coloured the ways in which VR and VWs are perceived.



October 3, 2011

Freshers’ week. Teaching looming. Desperately trying to finish the paper. Have discovered so many great potential lines of enquiry over the summer but need to rein them in and focus….we can only go one step at a time.


September 21, 2011

Nic had some great news from ReactionGrid (who host our model in Open Sim). They have been really helpful in our quest to migrate the model to a server here in Bristol, so that we can have complete control over it and hopefully resolve some of the poor performance we saw with the network at Chantry High School. They are upgrading to the latest version of Open Sim and have very kindly agreed to keep on hosting us ands delay the migration until the upgrade is complete. This is fantastic for us because the upgrade should resolve a number of our issues with OS – in particular it will contain the auto-pilot fix that will get Alva and Isaac walking again.  This is great news also for our future plans for our ‘bot community. We are so grateful to RG for all the generous help they have given us.


September 13, 2011

Still on a high about the Niccolini volumes discovery. Showed Nic – he loved it too, particularly because it’s so detailed. One of the selling points of the enormously expensive volumes was that they used the latest chromolithoigraphy processes so the Court/House in Regio VIII is in colour (a change from the usual sepia views we work with). We decided that when we dare take on the job of colouring our model, this should be our template. I really like the extra layer of  mediation that this will add on our own vision of a ‘faux’ Pompeian house.


September 5, 2011

Had a fantastic research moment! From 1854-1896, the Niccolini brothers published in Naples a series of volumes called Le Case ed I monumenti di Pompei disegnati e descritti . There were 4 volumes which aimed to give complete pictures of the finds from selected buildings, not just the art and architecture but the objects found in them. They were groundbreaking at the time because they aimed to consider the disparate information together to build as complete as possible view of each building.

The final volume in 1896 took this much further by giving artists who had worked on the volumes a chance to imagine a building completely restored. Their reconstructions (or ‘restauri’) were accompanied by sketches of the ruins on which they were based. Anyhow, flicking through these I came to one which claimed to be of a house in Regio VIII. But it’s not – it’s not even a house from Pompeii – it is quite clearly the Pompeian Court of the Crystal Palace (the only difference is that the artists has stuck a Roman lady in the atrium and imagined a beautiful blue sky streaming through the compluvium rather than the view of the Palace frame. As far as I know, nobody has ever noticed that this image is an interloper – the Court seems to have done a very good job of passing itself off as a genuine Pompeian house. The joke is even better because Giuseppe Abbate, who decorated the Court, had contributed images of  genuine Pompeian frescoes to the earlier volumes and, in this presentation, he gets to be a ‘real’ Pompeian craftsman. I love this!


August 29, 2011

Working hard on the research paper has been distracting me from anything else – as a result I’m retrospectively blogging yet again. Very aware that all the things I promised Nic I’d do haven’t got done….


August 22, 2011

Nic has been testing the avatar registration system – this is the system that we will use to get vistors to sign up to create accounts for ‘off the peg’ avatars. We’re planning on having several avatar types, in modern, Victorian and Roman costumes of different genders and class, the idea being that their experience in the model will be dictated by these variables (so for instance, our ‘bots will behave differently towards, and impart different information to avatars whom they recognise as being of a certain status or sex). Seems all to be working, though a bit fiddly – but it’s a big step forward in terms of the sophisticated environment that we want to create.


August 16, 2011

Only one bit of news this week – the University of Bristol, along with the Universities of West of England, Bath, Exeter and Cardiff have been awarded a huge grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to start up the Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technologies Hub (REACT) for Bristol, the South West of England and South Wales. The hub will promote collaborative projects between university researchers and private enterprise and ours was one of those used in the bid as an example. We were a tiny component of a hugely complex bid but I think we held up well – and a screenshot from the model is now on the University of Bristol homepage announcing the success. You can read more about the news at:

This could be great for us – not just because we could get direct funding for the ‘bot phase of our research but because this could give us the opportunity to work in a much wider regional network. Very excited!……course, we haven’t finished the last phase yet. Better get moving…


August 10, 2011

A week into doing some proper research (the thing we always say we’ll do but then end up wrestling bloomers onto malfunctioning avatars or rushing around following leads for funding) and I’ve already found some excellent stuff to help us think about the role of visualisation and, more importantly the population of visualisation by historical characters. I decided to look into how these issues have been dealt with in ‘real life’ heritage scenarios and found the work done by the Performance, Learning and Heritage project (funded by the AHRC) at the University of Manchester incredibly useful in exploring atrtitudes towards the role of performance (in its widest sense) in museums and heritage sites, bringing up some very useful comparitive material for our use of ‘bot characters and, more importantly, showing that the issues we’ve been wanting to tackle are very prevalent in the wider arts and humanities community.


August 4, 2011

I have put aside all of August to write an article about our project for publication. We’ve done such a lot of presentations but we really need to get something in print. The idea is that we’ll try to get a preliminary paper in a Learning Technology type publication reporting on the intentions of the project, and a longer one in a Classics journal reflecting on the initial process of reconstruction. We’ll also hopefully be in the volume arising from the York Crystal Palace conference considering the  ways in which our model illuminates the aims and experience of the Palace. This should all be easy as we’ve written all this stuff so many times before – only, I’m rubbish at getting started (which is why this blog is suddenly all up to date – classic distraction behaviour!). Still, we need to get some publications out there to help validate the project.


July 29, 2011

Nic and I met briefly for a project meeting (which basically entailed giving each other the same list of tasks we gave each other last week and failed to act on). However, there is forward progress – we seem to  be one step nearer to finding a way of getting our own Open Sim server installed on our university network. Nic thinks the sticking point will be our proposal to take this server off campus to fit into school networks when we’re running the course but getting this sorted will be a huge leap for us and is really important in reducing the kind of problems with network speed we experienced in Ipswich.


July 19, 2011

David from Daden emailed to say that they think they have a solution to the problems we’ve been having making our bots, Alva and Isaac, walk on their prescribed path in Open Sim. This is fantastic – we had not anticipated the mobility problems we have encountered in Open Sim and not fixing it would probably mean that we would have to revert to Second Life. Experimenting with the proposed solution will enable us to see the potential for our proposal to endow all our ‘bots with free movement.


July 15, 2011

I finally got round to writing up the evaluation report on the sessions with Chantry High in Ipswich. We’ve forwarded the document to the school so we’ll post it up on this site after we have their response and additions. In brief though, our main findings are:


1. Open Sim will run on fairly ordinary mid-range school laptops with no dedicated graphics acceleration hardware but works best using Meerkat as the client software. We will be using this software for similar situations in the future.

 2.  The migration to Open Sim was very successful, meet ing our expectations in almost all areas and exceeded them in a few. The inability to make our ‘bots walk was the only major disappointment and we need to seek a solution as high priority.  

3. We suffered from a combination of inadequate network bandwidth at the school and the US Open Sim server being slightly under-powered. Increasing the server RAM did result in a small but noticeable improvement.  Purchasing our own high specification server to run Open Sim in the UK, which we will be able to loan  to participating schools if necessary will solve this issue.

 4. Configuring school computers to run Open Sim is relatively straightforward but we need to be more proactive in ascertaining the scale of school IT support when discussing logistics and to develop a full and clear advice sheet and to run through a number of standard tests before the project begins in any school.


4. The students responded well to the environment and said they found the system very easy to use.

 5. The virtual environment and learning activities appear to have successfully engaged students. Students were very positive and a number of boys who offered a number of useful suggestions were recognised as students who often lack engagement with history.  

6. Students seemed to enjoy different ways of communicating – particularly the opportunity to interview Gwendoline directly via the skype connection. The variety of activities seemed to work and the lesson plans seemed pretty well paced. The group Apprentice-style challenge worked particularly well. The saving over of consequences also worked (decisions made in session 5 affected chances of survival in session 6).

 7. Because of the technical issues, students didn’t get to be as involved with their avatars as we would have liked. Nevertheless, they did react very strongly to characterisation and the way their avatars were treated in the world. Some students were observed to role play. They appeared to have no problem with being allocated an avatar of different gender to themselves.

 8 Open Sim was a completely novel environment. The freedoms it offers students is one of its main attractions but we should lay out clear ground rules of expected behaviour in world. Disengaging the flying mode was a good tactic.

 9. The teacher should be logged on and his view of the world shown on a main screens so that even if not all students are in world, everybody can see what’s going on.  Also, students in world looking at their own screens are aware of his/her presence and the teacher can share some of their experiences.



June 30, 2011

Great – we got the nod that the Bristol team for the AHRC Hub for Digital Humanities bid like our proposal and are going to include it intheir application. This is great if we get the money but also because it’s always useful to gather feedback on our ideas and now we have a working document to serve as a basis for funds seeking elsewhere if need be. I have no idea when we might know what the upshot was but I’m really happy we’ve been able to keep the project in high view at Bristol.


June 24, 2011

This week we have been working furiously on our bid to become part of the bigger bid for the University of Bristol to be part of an Arts and Humanties Research Council Hub for the Digital Humanities and have been thrashing round ideas about improvng the sophistication of our robot avatars with Daden.

We knew that we wanted to develop the sophistication of our robots so that we can develop more open-ended interactions with visitors, making visitors’ presence have an effect on the behaviour of the avatars. We want to be able to programme our ‘bots so that they will be able to deliver a series of gestures or actions in response to other avatars depending on the costumes they are wearing – this will give the appearance that the robots are sentient to other presences (for example, if a working class and upper class avatar meet, the working class one will become deferent and the upper class one assertive).  We also want them to have a memory so that they don’t repeat themselves inanely. Above all, we want to develop a bot that is easy to set up and customise so that the kind of teaching and learning techniques we are developing  more attractive and attainable for teachers and lecturers in other simulations. It would also allow students and teachers using our model to contribute to the environment by adding their own robot character.

In order to achieve all this we need, as a preliminary, to break the problem we have with Alva and Isaac in Open Sim. In SL, we had programmed them to walk on a set route around the atrium, pausing to talk about key objects. In Open Sim, they start moving and simply run off into the distance. If we could get our ‘bots to move randomly around the model, and to react to each other’s status and gender, we could set up some great experiments in circulation patterns in the Palace as well as provide a very rich environment for users. It’s really exciting – but we’ve got to impress the Hub bid team at Bristol let alone the AHRC….



June 17, 2011

I have been in York giving a paper as part of the History of Art’s dept workshop ‘What is to be done with the Crystal Palace?’. It was a great event – a day of papers focused on the Sydenham Palace with some brilliant material looking at the presentation of ethnography in the Palace, the organisation of the pageants held there etc. I talked about the project – all the usual stuff but with a stress on how it might help us reasses the Palace itself and what new directions of research the virtual environment could offer. It was really useful to gather feedback – definitely ideas about using the model to test circulation patterns seemed to garner the most interest. But what was most interesting was to hear the questions being asked by other researchers and the approaches they were taking to answer them. The stress on different perspectives (looking at different media, including diaries, to see a ‘bottom-up’ picture of the Palace rather then the ‘top-down’ view from the guidebooks – or to interrogate those guidebooks in new ways – was a real spur that we must carry on this aspect of our bot characters and invest more in making the class differences between them more nuanced. At the moment we basically leap from Dick van Dyke chimney sweep type to upper class aristocracy with a brief interlude of middle class-ness.


April 15, 2011

No Crystal Palace work this week as I am in Rome with my students. So nice to be climbing all over real antiquities after a term of virtual ones!


April 5, 2011

It was the last session this week and we are knackered! We have both been in Ispwich to deliver the final class, the point of which was to help students learn about the eruption of Vesuvius through ‘experiencing’ the disaster, empathise with disaster victims and  As we were planning to be in the classroom ourselves and we wnate dto spend time with the students reflecting on their own experiences of this course and considering how effectively they feel they have learned and what elements have been most useful or distracting, we decided not to use Open Sim ‘live’ in the classroom. Instead we decided to present an animation filmed in Open Sim of the characters experiencing the eruption. We were at work until after 10 filming this – it was great fun to be being creative again and to explore different ways of using this technology. Basically, we had to storyboard the narrative, write a script, log in all the characters on separate PCs in a computer suite, load up their lines, set up another PC with a camera angle set to catch all the action and linked to camtasia. Then we had to crash around on swivel chairs between the computers activating each character in turn to deliver their lines and move around. I was a rubbish actress because I’m still awful at controlling avatars – they kept missing their positions or blocking other actors (was all terribly Acorn Antiques). We added to this some lighting effects and a soundtrack of rain which sounded pretty like falling pumice and a big explosion. Anyhow it was great fun and we’re really looking forward to doing more of this.

So in class we played the film and stopped it at key stages of the narrative to ask the students what decisions they would make on behalf of their avatar characters to save themselves. Their choices weren’t dictated by status so for example slave avatars had to weight up the desire to escape and the risk of being caught and executed for desertion. Nic as Gaius had also locked up the slaves of the losing team so they couldn’t go anywhere, nor could the winning team’s elite male avatar as the reward of winning turned out to be becoming engaged to Gaius’ daughter, Ione, and thus rather obliged to stay with his new father-in-law. The last shot was an aerial view of the exterior of the model covered in ash in the drak. It was really atmospheric and it really seemed to have an effect on the students. We then led them up through the timeline which was noe converetd into a series of images of plaster casts of the volcano’s victims. Very effective.

Afterwards we collected feedback on the project. The students were clearly very engaged and showed that they had understood the content of the project, had enjoyed the activities and found the environment and learning activities motivating. Afterwards we chatted with Tommy and Helen who were both pleased with the students’ progress. I’ll post up our own reflections later in the year when we’ve had time to recover!