A thorough evaluation of a spatial humanities project (1)

Part One: Three-Dimensional Project

The home page of The City and The Rising website showing the timeline with information expanded, the base map, and colour coded ‘hotspots’. (Noho and Dublin Corporation)

The City and The Rising is an interactive website developed by Noho for Dublin Corporation to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The aim of the site was described by the Lord Mayor of Dublin as “an online experience that is visually striking, emotionally engaging and highly memorable”. (TechCentral)

So does the site live up to these ambitious claims?

Technical overview

The site contains seven php pages, two for viewing maps and the others make up the main sections of the site which are navigated through a mobile style menu which expands and lists the following sections: Home, Key Figures, Videos, Sources, The Virtual Museum, and About.

Maps

The home page, map.php, is where the majority of the site’s features are executed. This page is based on a tile layered Leaflet map. Leaflet is an open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps. (Leaflet website)

The map data consists of three tiled canvases. The base layer map is The city of Dublin and its environs: A. Thom & Co. Ltd, 1908. The site utilises Leaflet Layer Groups and Layers Control to allow users the option of displaying a second base layer, a contemporary Dublin Today map, which is an un-credited OpenStreetMap. Both of these maps can also be overlaid with a higher resolution geo-referenced map entitled ‘Map of premises destroyed or damaged during riots of April and May 1916’.

Geo-referenced Damage Map (Noho & Dublin Corporation)

Locations

A typical full screen location information layer accessed by clicking on a ‘hotspot’. (Noho & Dublin Corporation)

The map ‘hotspots’ are Leaflet custom marker icons which, on mouse over, display colour coded custom CSS3 popup graphical links; red for location information, images, and external links; and blue for maps of key locations. These key locations are displayed on the ‘site.php’ and have further information and 3D views. Some 3D views are static images of 3D models while others are interactive 3D models.

For St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin Castle, and Sackville Street locations the developers have the utilised HTML5 canvas tag’s capability to embed WebGL interactive models.

GPO in the virtual Sackville Street simulation in WebGL (Noho & Dublin Corporation)

Prior to November 2015, 3D interactive web based content depended upon plugins to render in browsers. Since then, most browsers have ceased supporting plug-ins due to performance, security, and compatibility issues. Now content must be “native” to the browser environment, which means utilising scripts already capable of rendering in a browser, therefore, HTML5, CSS, XML and javascript. WebGL meets these requirements for 2D and 3D graphics. “WebGL (Web Graphics Library) is a JavaScript API for rendering interactive 3D and 2D graphics within any compatible web browser without the use of plug-ins.” (WebGL website)

The virtual Sackville Street simulation with hotspots. (Noho & Dublin Corporation)

Each virtual environment on the site consists of an orbital camera view of the general area with zoom capabilities. Labelled markers highlight selected buildings and can be clicked to open up orbital views of the buildings. Each view has only one contextual annotation accessed from the main menu by clicking the ‘i’ icon.

Model making process

Highly detailed model buildings were developed in 3D Studio Max while the less complex buildings were modeled in sketchfab. All of these were incorporated in to a cityscape within Unity. These were used to produce video fly-throughs but were greatly simplified for exporting to WebGL in order to maximise end user access. The more memory which is required the fewer the number of  end-users capable of running the models, therefore, a maximum java asset bundle of 30mbs was used by Noho. (Buckley; Unity Blog)

The Shelbourne Hotel modeled in 3D Studio Max and adjacent small building modeled in Sketchfab. (Noho & Dublin Corporation)

The strategies employed to reduce the memory included using ‘cheats’, which are flat façades, and other standard efficiency conventions used in gaming such as controlling the level of detail relative to zoom view and creating classes, for example a roof, and using instances of it at different scales in different locations with each instant only requiring additional scaling and rotation information. (Buckley)

User experience

The site has helpful instructions, however, they repeatedly appear when navigating thus becoming a nuisance. The main menu is easily overlooked and could have been a horizontal menu on higher resolution screens. Conversely, the side menu, which is a timeline, is not responsive and therefore causes problems on mobile devices rendering text off screen and obscuring the map.

The Virtual Museum page allows users to download a virtual Sackville Street for desktop and/or Oculus Rift. While this could be criticised for overlooking Mac users and restricting access, it should be seen as an adjunct to the site.

The section for “Key Figures” accessed from the main menu on the top left.
The section for “Videos” showing the level of detail in the original models developed in Unity.

The ‘Sources’ section, contrary to what one might expect, has no textual references, bibliography, research or writing credits. This section instead contains a selection of images and static 3D models.

The compression of the virtual environments achieves reasonable download times allowing for maximum access, however, varying levels of detail amongst buildings, a dependence on ‘cheats’, and a complete lack of movement, vehicular or human, make the models rather otherworldly and lifeless .

Conclusions

Does the site live up to the claims of the Lord Mayor mentioned above?
Overall the site offers no new insights into the Rising since it merely presents well documented narratives and therefore has little or no research value.

It can said to be visually striking and memorable as the site is attractive and for the most part user friendly and engaging. However, it is less so emotionally engaging. The virtual environments, which represent a core feature of the experience, lack emotional engagement by being too surreal, clean, sunny and devoid of human representation.

Arguably, the site offers what the Lord Mayor termed ‘edutainment’ (TechCentral) and a means to engage the non-specialist public in a very important aspect of Irish modern history. At the very least the site offers those who engage with it a greater understanding of the spatial aspects of the Rising. If it can foster appreciation, enhance spatial awareness of the events, and engage non-specialists in history, it is of value.

Works cited:

‘City and the Rising Website Gives Fresh View of 1916’. TechCentral.Ie, 26 Apr. 2016, http://www.techcentral.ie/QjWHA. Accessed 17/11/2017

‘The City and the Rising Archives’. TechCentral.Ie, http://www.techcentral.ie/tag/the-city-and-the-rising/. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

Buckley, John. (Noho Ltd.) AFF624 guest lecture. Iontas, NUIM, 2017. Lecture

Unity – Game Engine. https://unity3d.com/. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

Leaflet — an Open-Source JavaScript Library for Interactive Maps. http://leafletjs.com/index.html. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

‘The WebGL API’. Mozilla Developer Network, https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/API/WebGL_API. Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

‘Understanding Memory in Unity WebGL – Unity Blog’. Unity Technologies Blog, https://blogs.unity3d.com/2016/09/20/understanding-memory-in-unity-webgl/. Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.

 

 

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