Sunday 4 March 2012

On Academic Juvenelia

The real life tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el Medineh, juxtaposed with my VRML model of the tomb, made back in 1998.You can probably guess which is which?

So, to my final set of paper publications, in my tour of things that I have published, which have been put into UCL's Open Access Repository. This is going back, way back, to my MSc dissertation, in 1998. I was undertaking an MSc in IT in the Department of Computing Science, at the University of Glasgow, and worked for the summer on a dissertation supervised by Dr Seamus Ross (now Prof at Toronto), in the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute. The dissertation subject matter was chosen by the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, who have various artefacts from the tomb of Sennedjem - could a VR model be built to show more about where they were originally found? They were working with a multimedia company to try and put computing in the gallery space - could I build something for them?

I used the top notch tech du jour, VRML 2.0, to hand script the whole thing, including complex geometry, fly throughs, animated creaky doors and tomb stones, based on published archaeological evidence about the complete tomb complex (not just the room above, which is the famous bit). I remember 3 months of working alone in a lab from 10am til 10pm, up to 7 days a week, so immersed in programming slow, clunky VR that when I got up from the chair to interact with the real world it moved too fast, and I got covered in bruises from walking into walls and doors and chairs. I remember working late into the night and hanging out in internet chat rooms for company. I remember this is when I started to put on weight (its not a dissertation unless you get "the graduate gut", right?). I remember regularly partying at Glasgow School of Art - the cliche of work hard, play hard. I remember doing user testing where people just wanted to drop shoot-em-up avatars into the virtual archaeological complex and said "is that it?" when you showed them the VR model. Yes, thats it. That's all a VR model does. Lets you explore it. I remember the multimedia company employed by the museum being a little bit "meh"and then asking me for all the code which they wanted to own copyright on (it wasnt as if I was being paid for this, you understand). It never made it into the museum, that I know of. I'm not sure that multimedia company actually built anything that went into the museum. But still! I completed the model which really is testament to what online virtual reality could achieve in 1998. How wonderful it looked then. How blocky it looks now!

Throughout this whole summer (it was the best of times! it was the worst of times!) Seamus was a fantastic supervisor who really spurred me on and encouraged and cajoled me to produce something that in the end was worthy of a distinction. I was proud of it then, I'm still proud of it now. I still aspire to be as helpful and constructive and thoughtful and understanding to my MA and PhD students now as he was to me then. I've said it before, and I will probably say it again - do we ever leave our academic supervisors?

I had thought at the end of the process to Never Ever Do Anything Academic Again, and had vague hand-wavy plans to "go travelling" or stick around Glasgow and take the bands I was in then a little more seriously. In the final weeks of my dissertation, Seamus thrust an application form into my hands to do a PhD at Oxford on some tablets from this Roman fort called Vindolanda.

On the last day of my dissertation - which was due in at midday, Seamus called into the lab, and said "How would you like to give a paper about your dissertation?" "Sure," I said "when?". "2pm." said Seamus. "There's a conference on here and someone is sick and has pulled out of their slot." So I bound up my dissertation, handed it in, wrote a powerpoint version, trotted home and put on a suit, and gambolled down the hill to the place where Digital Resources in the Humanities 1998 was being held, and gave my first academic paper. I was a little too honest. I hadnt seen an academic paper before. I then was allowed to take home any food that was left from the buffet lunch - I was on my uppers after a year of self-funded study. Someone stopped me when I was filling my bag with apples, to ask what was I doing - that person was Edward Vanhoutte. And a more-than-a-decade long friendship in Humanities Computing (as was then) was forged.

And here are the papers that emerged from it. The Internet Archaeology paper came about because Seamus suggested I wrote it up, and put me in touch with the journal editors: I wouldnt have done it without this encouragement. I wouldnt have given it the title it has now (you learn, I suppose, how people would find academic papers, and I dont think that this title sums up what it's about, now).
Terras, M (1999) A Virtual Tomb for Kelvingrove: Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Education. Internet Archaeology (7) PDF

And then there's the one paper from my whole back catalogue that I cant find in digital form. The one that got away. It's only 1000 words, so I could type it in again (why? the Internet Archaeology one is better). There is one last hope - somewhere in the eaves of my house is my old laptop from back then, that may have a copy of this on it. One day I will get round to digging it out, but til then, it lives to show that my digital-born archival strategy wasnt quite as good as I wanted it to be (isn't that always the way?):
Terras, M (1999) The Sen-nedjem Project: Archaeology, Virtual Reality and Education. Archaeological Computing Newsletter , 53 4 - 10.
And here endeth my tour of academic papers that I have published. Next up, the verdict: is it worth putting papers up in Open Access?

Update: since posting this, the wonderful Jeremy Huggett at the University of Glasgow has emailed me the .tex file that they have in the archive for ACN, so I now have a version in text of the lost file! will reformat and post to the repository soon... which means my paper archive is complete! Thanks Jeremy! Complete Set!!!!!11111!!!!!1111111!

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