Let’s get nekkid! Stripping the user experience to the bare essentials (CSDH/SCHN Abstract)
The Visionary Cross project is an extensible, multi-object, multi-media edition of a Cultural Matrix in Anglo-Saxon England. It is built around mediated representations of sculpture, buildings, and text. It employs XML transcriptions, high resolution 2D photography, 3D laser scans, 3D photogrammetry, and a socially focussed game engine. The project is about both the objects it includes (several of which are among the most studied from the period) and the relationships among them. The edition is intended to appeal to scholars and the interested public. It is also intended to be extensible: we hope that others will want to use our material in ways that we do not anticipate in the context of other collections and approaches to these cultural objects, including commercial and tourism applications.
When we first began planning this edition, we devoted most of our attention to questions of user interface. How would users interact with our objects? What kind of metaphors could we use to indicate the close relationship among the different components? Did we need to use a game engine? Did we need to design a special viewer? What kind of interface could we use that would contain 3D objects, 2D text and images, and, potentially, a navigable representation of location in which these different objects were contained?
As our project has progressed, however, we have gradually begun to reverse our assumptions. A project like the Visionary Cross, we believe, is less about the interface than the quality of its data and the usefulness of its API. Influenced especially by the work of Peter Boot and Joris van Zundert (Boot and van Zundert 2011; van Zundert 2012), we have come to see our own primary role to be the providers of a service rather than a self-contained scholarly object.
This change in approach has manifested itself in several ways.
In the first place, we no longer worry about interconnectivity among our several “views” of the raw material. The Visionary Cross team involves several sub-projects, led by groups of scholars with very different interests in the raw material of our edition. While we were initially concerned about enforcing common standards among these different sub-projects as a means ensuring interoperability, we new see the sub-projects as independent use-cases, developed by members of the project team, but otherwise similar to what we hope will be developed by independent users once the project as a whole is released.
In the second place, we are now also much more aware of the one-off uses proposed by external users. Early on in the project’s history, we found ourselves being “distracted” by demands on our time by external users who wanted us to develop instances of our material for their personal use: views of specific panels on our crosses or pages from our manuscripts; models that users could use to develop physical facsimiles; images and details from our object for use by archaeological authorities or, for tourism purposes, by the institutions who control the original objects. As a result of our change in approach, we now see these requests as a core use of the project as a whole: a truly extensible project, we believe, must be open to use in the ways that users want, not only those anticipated by the project designers.
The biggest manifestation of this change in approach, however, has been the massive simplification of our plans for publication. Where we originally planned on a heavy, self-contained interface for the edition’s multiple views, objects, and approaches, we are now working with a model inspired by the University of Pennsylvania’s OPenn project for a minimalist representation. Individual objects will be published to the web as research objects in their own right, presented in a format that will allow easy, no-frills access to views, downloadable files, and scholarly discussion. But we will not, on the whole, attempt to construct a single interface to guide readers’ interactions with the group. And we will be including among our files formats suitable for use in rapid manufacturing and the development of tourism applications.
The Visionary Cross project was initially conceived of as a massively integrative scholarly edition: an edition that would not only edit the objects in our collection, but also the connections among them. As we have acquired the objects and begun to think more concretely about publication, however, we have come to believe that the future of the scholarly digital edition lies in fact in its atomisation: the provision of minimal and “just-in-time” interfaces and file formats that allow others to work with our material in ways that suit their needs. This paper is about the choices and tradeoffs we are making in pursuing this new, minimalist approach.
Boot, Peter, and Joris van Zundert. 2011. “The Digital Edition 2.0 and The Digital Library: Services, not Resources.” In Digitale Edition und Forschungsbibliothek Beiträge der Fachtagung im Philosophicum der Universität Mainz am 13. und 14. Januar 2011, edited by Christiane Fritze. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
van Zundert, Joris. 2012. “If You Build It, Will We Come? Large Scale Digital Infrastructures as a Dead End for Digital Humanities.” Hungarian Studies Review: HSR 37 (3): 165–86. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.darius.uleth.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=77596210&site=ehost-live&scope=site.