Re-Locating Literary Study: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of VRML

  1. 1. Chad D. Kearsley

    Department of English - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Institute for Academic Technology / IBM - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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The emergence of Internet technologies into the
academy promises to shift the way we go about
our studies and teaching. We are seeing more and
more courses shifting syllabi and discourse onto
email, listservs, the World Wide Web, and into
other technologies emerging on the bleeding edge
of communications technology. One of these
emerging technologies, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), and the browsers and
authoring tools being developed to use this standard, brings the promise of three dimensional space
to the Internet. Until the explosion of the World
Wide Web in 1995, the Internet has been primarily
a text-based medium, and even with the proliferation of the Web, texts primacy as the lingua franca
of Internet communications still remains central.
But with the advent of VRML and its cousin
technologies, the metaphor of space in the term
cyberspace becomes a real potentiality. This ability to create virtual spaces easily transportable
across the Internet opens the doors for many disciplines, not least of which are the disciplines of
the humanities.
In my presentation, I propose to explore VRML
and the possibilities it offers in humanities computing, especially as related to literary studies. The
presentation will cover briefly the history of the
development of VRML, offer a survey of its current uses in both the hard sciences and the humanities, and examine limitations of the VRML
standard as it is currently written. The main focus
of the presentation will center on three prototype
applications. By demonstrating prototypes in two
areas where VRML might be used in literary study
– drama and literary history – I hope to show some
of the potential advantages and limitations of this
three dimensional modeling standard as well as
give the attendees a taste of what the future of three
dimensional computing in the humanities might
look like given today’s technology. Using VRMLbased applications as models, this presentation
provides a common starting point for scholars to
begin to consider uses of virtual reality and three
dimensionality in their own study of computing in
literary research.
Definitions, history and current trends
The Virtual Reality Modeling Language known as
VRML (and sometimes pronounced vuhr-muhl) is
an ASCII-based language specification that allows for the description of three dimensional spaces, a language standard that can then be interpreted by rendering engines on different software
platforms. VRML allows detailed description of
three dimensional spaces. With this standard, one
can create a world in three dimensional space as
rich or as plain as wanted, changing light sources
and direction, object textures and complexity, size
and location, etc.
The ASCII nature of the language allows worlds
described in VRML to be compact enough to be
reasonably accessible across the Internet since the
client-server relationship underlies the basic premise of VRML 1.0’s portability. A complete
VRML file, marked with a .wrl extension, resides
on a server and is accessed and downloaded across
the Internet through a client browser, either a two
dimensional browser like Netscape or a three dimensional browser like WebFX or Fountain. The
VRML file is only rendered by the browser when
completely downloaded to the local computer.
(The presentation will talk in more detail about the
advantages and disadvantages of this kind of use
of the client-server model; for the moment recognize that this model does not allow for person to
person interactivity within that three dimensional
space.) The ASCII nature of the VRML file allows
it to be relatively compact and allows it to be
portable across platforms, much like HTML.
This portability across software platforms is one
of the strongest advantages of VRML. For example, a three dimensional world created in a DOSbased AutoCAD application can be translated
from that proprietary software’s language into
VRML, allowing the file then to be ported across
to a MAC-OS system, a Windows system, an
X-Windows system, etc. VRML developers are
not restricted then to development on any single
platform but are free to develop in potentially any
computing environment familiar to them.
The presentation will also include a discussion of
the history of VRML development as well as offer
an update on the state of VRML and its cousintechnologies as of June of 1996. Given the youth
of VRML 1.0 as a standard, the current movements to develop VRML 2.0, proprietary develop-
ments of VRML+, the development of QuickTime
VR, and potentially other cousin-technologies, it
serves the purposes of this proposal and abstract
simply to mention that the presentation will discuss up-to-date issues and trends as related to these
VRML prototypes
This presentation will use as its focus two prototype applications developed in accordance with
the VRML 1.0 standard. These prototypes will
serve as examples of the kinds of humanities computing possible with VRML in a discipline not
immediately thought of when talking about virtual
space and virtual reality: literary study.
Some literary genres and forms seem quite natural
candidates for study in a virtual space, however.
Their creative and literary expression work within
and evoke three dimensional space as part of the
fabric of their textuality. Other areas of literary
study are not as readily adaptable to movement
into three dimensional, virtual space. This presentation will walk through two prototypes that illustrate how virtual reality applications might be
developed in literary study and teaching, that demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of current technologies based on VRML, and that suggest directions literary studies and instruction
might take as the technology moves us further into
a virtual reality environment distributed over the
Internet. Please bear in mind that these application
designs are only prototypes developed with bleeding edge technology. Seeing the reality of that
bleeding edge has value, however, despite the
potential pain to both presenter and viewer. (Rest
assured, at the same time, that I will prepare and
test the technology to be demonstrated in this
presentation.) Keeping in mind the nature of this
new, bleeding edge technology, the presentation
demonstrates these two prototypes by in order of
their natural affinity to being located in three dimensional space.
Drama studies
When we think of three dimensional space and
literary studies, we often find that drama comes
first to mind. By its dual nature as a performance
text, drama resides in a liminal space, half-way
between text and performance, between imaginative, virtual space, and concrete, physical place on
a stage. This duality as text and performance object allows drama to lend itself to computer applications in three dimensional space. For some time
now, scenic designers have been using AutoCAD
software to aid in designing sets. Directors have
used the same software to help them visualize
blocking and stage focus. In fact, stage models
have been around for centuries. Today, however,
a few designers are beginning to turn to VRML as
a means of describing the three dimensional spaces of their set designs. We might as easily bring
the same technology into our teaching and studying of drama as literature. The presentation hopes
to show one way this might be done.
With an appreciative nod to the host nation and
city, I have chosen to use in this demonstration
Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1884) as the subject of the first VRML prototype. (I spent the
1992-93 academic year at the University of Oslo
as a Fulbright Scholar studying Henrik Ibsen’s
major prose drama with the help of Dr. Hans Skei
and Dr. Vigdis Ystad.) How might the study and
teaching of Ibsen’s play be enhanced through
VRML technology? Ibsen’s experience in Bergen
was as a dramaturge, a technical director of sorts.
He began to learn during his years working in the
Bergen (at Den Nationale Scene) about the space
and place of the theatre, about sight lines and
acoustics, about entrances and exits, and other
elements of stagecraft. The technical theatre Ibsen
learned in Bergen plays out in his dramatic work
in the explicitness of the stage cues and instructions he gives in the texts of his plays. Ibsen’s texts
are full of these explicit and implicit clues about
props, stage design, exits and entrances, lighting,
movement, etc. By adding to our study of Ibsen’s
craft a movement into a virtual place rendered
according to the VRML standard, we are able to
re-locate one aspect of our study of Ibsen’s drama
and to shift our perspectives on that drama in new
This part of the presentation will revolve around a
demonstration of a virtual space designed to represent the set as indicated in Ibsen’s text of The
Wild Duck. Through the prototype the presentation will demonstrate the capabilities of VRML to
hyperlink between three dimensional worlds/spaces and HTML documents. Additionally, the prototype demonstrates the range of behaviors allowed by VRML 1.0 and the limitations of the
VRML 1.0 standard. The prototype will also present other uses of virtual spaces to teach The Wild
Duck, including the importance of Ibsen’s own
virtual space within the play’s symbolic structure:
the attic. Finally, the prototype will show how this
type of technology advances earlier efforts to
bring computing to drama studies. A couple of
years ago, Eric Johnson developed software called
ACTORS, designed as a tool to process the electronic text of a play in order to tell which dramatic
characters are on stage simultaneously and thus to
suggest possible doubling of roles for a performance. Johnson suggested at the time that additional literary and dramatic insights might be gained
if researches noted which characters are on stage
together, when, and how often (Johnson, 399).
With VRML, we might extend Johnson’s work
into a three dimensional visualization, locating
those actors on stage and giving the student or
scholar (as well as the theatre professional) a chance to place those actors and, in so doing, to visualize the performance text. Pushing the concept
even further, this presentation will suggest how
bringing Ibsen’s play (and any other drama for that
matter) into a virtual space allows students and
scholars to study interactively the complexities of
set design and its impact on theatrical metaphor
and dramatic meaning. Unlike film, virtual spaces
created in VRML allow users to interact more
directly with the objects on the virtual stage. It is
hoped that with the demonstration of this prototype the presentation will give the attendees a chance
to see directly what can happen when we re-locate
an inherently three dimensional literary text into a
space and place, albeit virtual.
Knowledge spaces of literary history
The second prototype of the presentation moves
from a naturally three dimensional literary genre
like drama to one less easily applied but perhaps
even as valuable. Writers write in a place, in a
location. As literary and cultural historians have
often said, writers do not write in vacuums but are
very much products of cultural place and location.
This second prototype will demonstrate a means
of re-locating literary history in a virtual place.
The prototype will center on a symbolic, three
dimensional recreation of Concord, Massachusetts during the 1840s and 1850s and try to show
how the writers of what is called the American
Renaissance – Emerson, Fuller, Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau – were themselves located in a
small New England town. The virtual space, a
layout of Concord at the time, will allow students
to interactively hyperlink from places within that
space like Emerson’s home, the House of the
Seven Gables, or Walden Pond to critical writings
about the relationship of these authors, digitized
versions and excerpts of their works, and multimedia presentations of the locations as they are today.
Demonstrating this prototype, the presentation
turns the focus to yet another way virtual reality
technologies distributed across the Internet might
advance computing in literary studies.
Book-based literary studies may be enhanced by
locating aspects of that study in three dimensional
spaces, spaces that allow for asynchronous and
interactive learning in ways that break out of traditional pedagogical models and into new places
and new spaces. Clearly, literary studies are not
the most readily ideal place for talking about three
dimensional humanities computing applications.
The work of literary studies is in texts, books, the
printed word and image, in text-based communication. We should not limit that study, however,
to the two dimensional space and page alone.
Certain aspects of literary studies lend themselves
to the capabilities of three dimensional, virtual
reality environments. By re-locating the learning
in a virtual space, we give students and scholars
new tools for understanding the impact of literature in three dimensional space. We return literature, in part, to the three dimensional culturally
connected space in which it was written and make
those cultural connections explicit to students. The
broad scope of cultural studies that now widens
our perspective of literary construction and that
asks scholars to return writers to their place within
a culture might benefit from computing tools that
re-locate literary texts within three dimensional
Partial Bibliography
Eubanks, Charles, John Moreland, and Dave Nadeau. VRML Repository. (30 Nov. 1995)
Ibsen, Henrik. Hundreårsutgave. Henrik Ibsen’s
Samlede Verker. Ed. Francis Bull, Halvdan
Koht, and Didrik Arup Seip. Vol. 1-21. Oslo:
Gyldendal, 1928-58. 21 vols.
Johnson, Erik. ACTORS: Computing Dramatic
Characters That Are on Stage Simultaneously.
Computers and the Humanities. Vol. 28. No. 6
1994-95. 393-400.
Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: U
of Chicago P, 1993.
Pesce, Mark, Gavin Bell, and Anthony Parisi. The
Virtual Reality Modeling Language: Version
1.0 Specification.
(30 Nov. 1995)
Pesce, Mark. VRML: Browsing and Building Cyberspace. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Pub.,
NOTE: A more extensive bibliography will be
added to my personal VRML pages available at

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Bergen

Bergen, Norway

June 25, 1996 - June 29, 1996

147 works by 190 authors indexed

Scott Weingart has print abstract book that needs to be scanned; certain abstracts also available on dh-abstracts github page. (

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (16), ALLC/EADH (23), ACH/ALLC (8)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC