Two Spatial History Projects: 2D & 3D

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.

 

Part Two: Two-Dimensional Map Based Project

A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg of the Smithsonian Online Magazine (Smithsonian Magazine, 2013)

 A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg is an interactive spatial history project carried out for the Smithsonian online magazine by a team led by Historical Geographical Information Systems (HGIS) pioneer Anne Kelly Knowles. The project is a follow on from her breakthrough research work on the seminal battle which she published in a 2008 essay entitled What Could Lee See at Gettysburg? While the intended audience of that research and essay was the academic community, the Smithsonian project is aimed at the general public. Despite this, the research was carried out with the same rigorous methodological approaches and standards of the earlier research and has true academic value.

Technical overview

The interactive map is an Esri Story Map built using ArcGIS and embedded in the standard magazine format utilising an <iFrame> tag. The map itself is a javascript application delivered utilising Dojo and uses a combination HTML, CSS and graphical elements. It also contains a number of embedded panoramic views of the battle field that are static images of three-dimensional models which can be panned left or right.

Layout and description.

Annotations are placed to the left of a timeline consisting of three days; 1st June to 3rd June 1863 during which the battle took place. This timeline is segmented into fifteen clickable markers representing key events. Each marker corresponds to an individual annotation and an interactive (pan and zoom) map which is displayed on the right.

The Interactive Map of the Gettysburg battle field (Smithsonian Magazine)

The annotations consist of a title, date and time, description and some textual information in the form of a narrative. In addition, every annotation has a link to a PDF file containing sources including a bibliography, maps and atlases, as well as the digital data utilised. Six panoramic views of what was visible by commanders in the field are also included amongst the annotations.

Panoramic simulated view of what Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s vista could have been from Cemetery Hill

The maps themselves have very detailed information relating to infantry, artillery, and cavalry positions with directional arrows indicating movements and symbols for skirmishes. Each brigade marker is annotated with the commanding officer’s name on mouse over. The map has a drop down legend from where a contemporary satellite image or a historical map can be chosen as the base map.

The Interactive Map of Gettysburg battle field showing a contemporary satellite image (Smithsonian Magazine)

The historical map is based on the 1863 terrain researched from various historical maps, including Bachelder’s 1876 troop movement maps, which were combined with present-day digital data. The same techniques applied by Knowles in her 2008 research were utilised to produce the most salient feature of the maps, the “viewsheds”.

A ‘viewshed’ showing which terrain it was possible to see from the vantage point indicated by the eye symbol. The shading in dark gray indicates areas hidden from view.

Created with ArcGIS software, these viewsheds indicate what a particular commanders could see, and could not see, from his vantage point at a decisive moments during the battle. (Smithsonian 2013) What is not visible to the commander is shaded dark gray, whereas the areas visible remain unshaded. It was these sight lines which showed what General Robert E. Lee could not see during the engagements which advanced the appreciation of what HGIS could bring to historical research. (Journal of Empire Studies)

User experience

The article and map published in June 2013 already look dated and cluttered compared to other more recent projects of this kind with equally complex data such as Stanford University’s Arrest of Italian Jews 1943-45. Its most obvious flaw on the Smithsonian website relate to its absolute dimensions of 1072 X 700px. With the dimensions specified in pixels the map is not responsive and therefore not suitable for mobile devices. The absolute pixel dimensions also make the map difficult to use on most desktop monitors, for example, the time line markers are grouped very close together and due to their small size are not user-friendly. A full screen option would have made the map much more user friendly. It required an examination of the source code to discover that the map also resides on the Esri server and is capable of being shared, embedded, and view at full screen at this address: https://storymaps.esri.com/stories/2013/gettysburg/

The Ersi hosted map is responsive to a degree, but becomes problematic at resolutions less then 750px in width.

The static nature of the project is disappointing and there is nothing in its presentation which would be out of place on a website built ten years earlier. The key element missing is motion, particularly considering the nature of the topic which focuses on events unfolded in time through motion in a landscape. However, this could have possibly been beyond the scope of the project and perhaps beyond the technology of the 2013.

Access

In keeping with the commissioning body’s ethos the project is freely available and the intended audience is the general public . However, there is a distinct lack of practices which are becoming common in digital humanities projects of this kind, such as a commitment to open licenses (usually Creative Commons) and utilising opensource technology in conjunction with opendata. The means of presentation and technologies used in this project are all proprietary and mostly copyright of Esri whose technologies dominate HGIS research in the USA. However, the ArcGIS Story Map platform produced by Esri has a limited function version which is free for non-commercial use. (Story Map website)

Conclusion

The project is one which offers historians, and non-specialists alike, new ways to view a seminal event of American History. As with the original 2008 project, new insights as to why certain decisions, which seemed inexplicable for so long, might have been made are explored by examining what could or could not be known by those taking part for whom visual reconnaissance was still the most important form of intelligence.

What lets down the project more than anything else is the restrictive and cluttered interface which is neither attractive nor user friendly. The contemporary expectations of most internet users today are formed within the context of a hyper graphical and visually stimulating environment. There is no reason why work which has been done with such integrity and has so much to offer in terms of knowledge, insights, and engagement, should not also engage with those expectations and be visually attractive and user friendly.

Works cited:

‘A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg’. Smithsonian, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/A-Cutting-Edge-Second-Look-at-the-Battle-of-Gettysburg-1-180947921/. 2013. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

Story Maps http://storymaps.arcgis.com/en/. Accessed 23 Nov. 2017.

‘Looking at the Battle of Gettysburg Through Robert E. Lee’s Eyes’. Smithsonian, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/looking-at-the-battle-of-gettysburg-through-robert-e-lees-eyes-136851113/. 2012. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

‘What Could Lee See at Gettysburg?’ Journal of Empire Studies, 20 Sept. 2013, http://empirestudies.com/2013/09/20/what-could-lee-see-at-gettysburg/.

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