VR Setup Update

Over the past month, I’ve been developing the project UI/UX (navigation, captions) within Unity’s XR system. My final goal is to create controls that allow the user to move around the house, traverse between floors and gather information about different objects. To enable locomotion, the navigable portions of the floors are made into teleportation areas that allow for free movement throughout the scene. Free movement is more immersive than a teleportation anchor system consisting of fixed points. For computational efficiency, we want to have each floor of the house be contained in a different “scene” in Unity, with users interacting with the staircase (for example) as a way of moving between spaces. For object interactions, I want users to be able to hover over an object to see if it is interactive, displaying an icon in front of it, along with maybe a sound effect. Once an object is selected, curatorial captions will appear as if someone is “typing” across the screen. If the object is selected once the captions have triggered, the text disappears. Any subsequent time the same caption is activated, the user will not have to wait for the text to type, and will instead see the description in full. In a test scene, I have been able to get the teleportation area and hover icon working. 

Screenshot  of Test Scene showing the placeholder icon appearing on hover 
Screenshot of the test scene showing the placeholder icon appearing on hover.

I’ve also gotten the text to appear letter by letter on the screen when objects are selected, but the user has to hold the button down for the duration of the display.

Screenshot of info text display appearing
Screenshot of info text displaying.

 In the next few weeks I will improve the design of these UX elements by using better graphics and typefaces. I also plan to add a teleportation reticle and the aforementioned sound effects. I hope to find a way to have the information text be triggered on selection and then disappear on the next selection which is a more intuitive progression. 

Through this process, I’ve had to write a few scripts which have been a challenge as someone with minimal coding experience. As I refine the UX more, I want to learn to create more complex scripts to achieve the best end result. 

Project Update


I wanted to give a quick update on the status of the 3D Black Boston project. Things have been moving slowly during the summer, but we aim to have the majority if not all of the objects modeled for David Walker’s home at 8 Belknap Street completed by the end of August. Right now I’m working on a some smaller models that will fill out the rowhouse so it feels more like a lived-in space. These include like a kettle, and furniture items such as a small bed for short-term boarders in the house.

As I’m working on making models, Liam, our project manager, is assembling a house space with objects created by the team in Unity. The resulting resulting environment will be able to be explored through both a computer screen and virtual reality headset. 

Screenshot of the dining room build in progress from the 8 Belknap Model.

[Dr. Linker’s note: The students, led by Project Manager Liam MacLean, have been working admirably on the project through various contingencies posed by life and coronavirus in the spring and summer. A build may be ready for local demonstration in the near future, pending a historical and technical review of the space. Meanwhile, research continues. We’re sorry to have gone so long without any kind of substantive update, but mostly we’ve been modeling and adjusting to contingencies.]

ACH Conference Reflections

By: Jenia Browne, Kesia Davies, Ananya Dhandapani, Jessica Luo, and Kira Torrieri

In late July, the 3D Black Boston team had the opportunity to present our progress thus far at the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) 2021 Virtual Conference. As the undergraduate members of the team, many of us had not presented at a professional conference before, and certainly not in a virtual setting. The process taught us what putting a professional research presentation together involves, exposed us to similar projects, and allowed us to reflect on and present our work. It was a great way to bring the past four to five months of research together. 

We mainly presented on the research process to find the objects we were going to model and find clues about Walker’s life and home. We also walked through the modeling process for some of these objects, from the initial SketchUp models to the final textured and post-processed ones in the VR demo. Our presentation included how we found sample objects and the difficulties we had modeling furniture using online sources (like images, illustrations, and videos). Since surviving records about Walker told us relatively little about Walker’s home and everyday life, we had to make design decisions about the type of furniture he had in his home. Although we used the probate record to determine the general objects inside the residence, it was up to us to find examples of objects that were accurate to his time period as well as to his status in society.

For example, Kesia’s slides focused on the decisions she took in respect to texturing an object, deciding the style of a chair, or even the type of object. Objects like sewing boxes, chairs, writing desks were important parts of Walker’s life. Objects represent plenty of information regarding a person’s life; for instance, a sewing box shows someone is skilled in the craft of clothing repair and needs their materials to be in a single container so transporting them is easier. That is why such a big focus was put on the choice of objects, textures, styles, and positioning in Walker’s home. She also described the collaborative effort that was required for one of the final empire chairs. 

We also took time to elaborate on the actual modeling process and how that was challenging since many of us did not have prior 3D modeling experience. In many instances, our furniture references were not photographed from all angles, so it was hard to tell how all their features looked in real life. One of the problems we faced while trying to do this work during the pandemic was that we couldn’t examine objects in person. Photographs and videos are sometimes difficult to interpret when modeling 3D objects. Talking about the challenges we had with 3D modeling was helpful in communicating our process and progress on the project so far; we felt this was important to share with the audience because it allowed us to show how our research and technical skills were combined into an interdisciplinary project.

Being able to reflect on the work we accomplished was one of the most rewarding parts of ACH. As an undergraduate team, we all came in with different perspectives and levels of experience with research and modeling. All of us had times when we felt a bit stuck, and sometimes the learning curve was more extreme than we anticipated. Putting together the presentation for ACH was a great way to accumulate all of our work, and even gain insight into each other’s experiences. Since we’re a remote team working everywhere from Texas to Massachusetts to Florida, we don’t get to interact as much as we may have outside of the pandemic’s limitations. Because of this, the presentation was a learning experience for us too, and a chance to appreciate each other’s contributions. We achieved a lot over the past five months, both in terms of personal growth and putting together Walker’s space. As undergraduate students, we don’t always get the chance to present our own work. Being acknowledged by a professional research community, receiving questions and comments on our work, and looking back on our work revealed how much we progressed throughout our research. 

The Q&A session was interesting because it offered a chance for us to consider aspects of the project that hadn’t been at the forefront of our minds. It also gave us an idea of what people with no relation to the project made of our work. The audience’s questions were very stimulating and struck a lot of self-reflection on the project’s development and future. We learned a lot about other team members when they expressed themselves in response to very interesting questions. Some answers were very inspiring and insightful. The Q&A section can help us figure out which parts of it were communicated clearly and which could be expanded upon in the future. As it was our first conference we felt like we learned a lot from the Q&A experience and are all excited to present more on this project in the future. 

Overall, ACH was an illuminating experience, and we’re all extremely grateful that we got to participate. We’re also very grateful for the mentoring and support we received throughout the project from Professor Linker, Professor Nieves, and Liam. Without their assistance, and our collaborations with each other, the project would not have developed this fast and the process would be far less enjoyable than it has been. Learning has always been prioritized in the project, which gave us all the space we needed to grow independently and make mistakes freely. Being able to share that experience with others was an incredible end to the summer!

General Update

For the past few months, I’ve been working on the 3D Black Boston project team researching David Walker’s life and home with the end goal of creating an immersive 3D reconstruction of his residence on 8 Belknap Street. The project requires a combination of research and reconstruction techniques that, for the most part, were new to me. My background as an architecture student gave me prerequisite knowledge regarding how to construct a building digitally but I’d never done research for a historic preservation project. Additionally, the immersive VR aspects of the project means I’ve had to learn new software including Unity in order to render SketchUp models and eventually create the simulation.

The research methods we used were novel to me as well. The research material we were searching (sources that provided information about Walker and his residence) were especially difficult to find because the project is centered around a Black male abolitionist in the 1800s. Writings and records from that time, such as census data and newspapers, are heavily biased towards white perspectives; thus, finding accurate information on David Walker’s life and home has proven difficult. There are inconsistencies regarding things such as the time and place of Walker’s birth, as well as when exactly he arrived at Boston. We’ve had to fill in the gaps of Walker’s life to try to create a narrative that is as coherent as possible for the purposes of this project; for example, looking at sources such as his famous appeal and the Freedom’s Journal newspaper which he worked on for a short time. We’ve encountered similar difficulties with his residence on Beacon Hill. Documents from the NPS cite tax records that approximate the date the house was built and surviving 1800’s buildings on Beacon Hill can give an insight into the architectural styles and layout of Walker residence. However, since the residence was rebuilt, it is challenging to make decisions in model reconstruction with any degree of certainty. Photographs or floorplans of Belknap Street in general are all but nonexistent before the home was rebuilt in the early 1900s.

Newspapers and illustrations as well as objects in various archives helped identify what kinds of models we needed to make, and I will admit I was initially surprised by the amount of detailed research each object required. Trying to recreate a simple object such as a pen means that I am required to know how pens were made and how far pen technology had advanced by 1820, as well as how expensive the different types of pens were and what materials would serve afterwards as examples for texturing in Unity. Finding references for these models in various archives has also been extremely helpful, but due to COVID, we’ve been unable to visit archives in person and are restricted to what has been recorded digitally.  I’ve modeled and textured a variety of objects including several of Walker’s appeals with different forms of pamphlet stitching and several writing tools which would be necessary given one of Walker’s occupations as an author.

3D textured unity model of an unfolded lap desk with several compartments and writing surfaces, primarily made of wood
 Textured lap desk model by Ananya Dhandapani
Image of an old unfolded lap desk with several compartments and writing surfaces, primarily made of wood. The object shows signs of age and use.
19th Century folding lap desk reference from https://www.pamono.com/19th-century-burl-campaign-lap-desk

Digital reconstruction as a way to explore history interests me on multiple levels. Architecture, in a sense, is a cultural record; the buildings people make and how they used them are intrinsically tied to a time and place in history. So, by researching Walker’s residence in detail and attempting to recreate it, we can gain valuable insight into his life and the culture of the time. Working on this project recontextualized my understanding of historical research; without substantial information about Walker himself and what belongings he might have owned made the process more concrete and approachable. This method continues to open up new avenues of research that I wouldn’t have considered had we just been looking at David Walker outside of his home, and I think it will ultimately lead to a more holistic understanding of the historic figure.

I’m also excited about using the reconstructed product in a virtual reality environment that people can explore. Not only will it take advantage of new technologies and hopefully lead to more projects of its kind being completed, it will also make this repository of detailed information about David Walker more accessible to people outside strictly academic circles. It will present information that would take up several pages in a densely written paper as a visual, interactive experience, making it easier for people to learn about historic communities such as Beacon Hill.