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© Marius Maile

Artifact Research
in Virtual Reality

Digital Humanities and Virtual Heritage in the synergy effect of the three-dimensional reconstruction of multi-layered artifacts

Dissertation project

Marius Maile




The project at a glance

In my dissertation project "Artifact Research - Digital Humanities and Virtual Heritage in the synergy effect of the three-dimensional reconstruction of multi-layered artifacts", which is part of the Digital History department at the University of Bielefeld, I am exploring the potential of virtual spaces and the multimedia, linked, interactive provision of technical artifacts and their associated data. The goal is to develop a digital strategy to enable the integration of these into the cognitive process in a new form. In this context, the artifacts are translated into the digital world with the help of digitization and reconstruction processes. Through virtual reality (VR), the resulting 3D models become interactively usable. Here I make use of the special characteristics of VR. The spatiality and the manifold interaction possibilities that are conceivable due to the digitality are to be emphasized. The result is a selection of digital tools based on simple and intuitive 3D interaction patterns. The project is intended to provide historians with a new approach to techno-historical artifacts.

Digital History is an interdisciplinary field of work that encompasses the use of digital technologies and computer-based methods for researching, analyzing, and presenting cultural heritage and historiographical questions. The task of Digital History is to use digital technologies and computer-aided methods to formulate new research questions, expand existing methods, and improve access to cultural heritage. It fosters collaboration between historians and computer scientists, enabling innovative approaches to research. Digital History plays a central role in addressing the challenges and opportunities of the digital age for historical scholarship. 

In the project history of technology three-dimensional, I therefore dedicate myself from the perspective of digital history to the possibilities that digitality as well as VR offer for the interactive use of complex 3D models and digitized sources, and investigate ways to enrich the cognitive process in the history of technology. After all, history of technology compares, annotates, interprets, links, highlights, and looks behind the scenes. This is exactly what VR, with its digital nature and seemingly infinite possibilities, is best suited for.


Digital History in the Virtual Reality?


What artifacts are we talking about?

The focus is on techno-historical artifacts that emerged from the time of industrialization onwards. The increasing systematization of technology since this time, as well as the greatly increased complexity of individual artifacts and the emergence of complex large-scale technical systems, make it necessary to make them accessible in their structure and functioning in such a way that they can be stored in a comprehensible way for historians and memory institutions. These artifacts also consist of a number of other diverse sources, both written and pictorial, which, especially when combined, can promote understanding.

Artifacts are of great importance for the history of technology. They are indisputable evidence of technologies and innovations of past times and, as material testimonies, enable research into their actual design, function and development. Technical artifacts also provide contextual information about the social, economic, and cultural conditions of their creation. They help to understand the interactions between technology and society, document innovations and technical achievements. They illustrate progress in a wide variety of fields and highlight coupling effects between different sectors. These are just a few examples, because ultimately technical artifacts are a central part of our cultural heritage and decisively shape our understanding of the past, present and future.


Why are techno-historical artifacts of interest?


Why is a virtual research environment necessary?

The inclusion of technical artifacts in the research process presents a challenge. Not only are they often difficult to access, e.g., for conservation, geographic, or existential reasons, but extensive interaction with them is not possible for the aforementioned reasons. The nature of technical artifacts further complicates the work, as the mere visibility of an artifact does not necessarily indicate its significance. If a technical artifact is understood as a historical source, its outward appearance often hides what is essential: its function as well as the complex inner life. Dissecting technical artifacts into their individual parts is not a solution for reasons of conservation and construction. Physical laws also limit the possibilities of a detailed examination. For example, an engine can hardly run without oil, an airplane cannot hover in an office, and the smallest components or mechanics are difficult to see with the naked eye. In addition, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the complex interconnections of individual components and their (un)indirect effects.

The artifact itself is only one component from which insights can emerge, because it consists of a variety of multimedia data. 

This presents further challenges: technical drawings, spare parts lists, repair manuals, test reports, advertising posters, newspaper articles and much more.  They are all essential source material, collected in archives and museums around the world, and contain important information. Linking the available data to the respective artifact and making it available in a virtual research environment is therefore an enriching opportunity, because it is precisely this that can serve to gain knowledge, understanding or presentation.


Multimedia  data?


Various components are needed for the development of a virtual research and exploration environment. In addition to the technical artifacts and the associated written sources, digitization and reconstruction processes play a central role. Unity software is used to implement both the digitized materials and the reconstruction models in an interactive environment. A selection of digital tools enables the research and exploration process.

Technical documentation

The technical documentation contains specific, artifact-related information and adds an important component to the information content.


For the development of the virtual environment, the behavior of the 3D models and all interactive tools, the game engine Unity and its XR Interaction Toolkit are used.

3D models

Digitization and reconstruction processes, such as photogrammetry or 3D modeling, are used to translate analogue technical artefacts into the digital world.

Unity - Virtual Reality

The Unity game engine and its XR Interaction Toolkit are used to develop the virtual environment, the behavior of the 3D models and all interactive tools.

There are no known peoples, now or in historic or even prehistoric times, who have not possessed technologies in some minimal sense.

Don Ihde: Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth, 1990

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