3D Scanning: Photogrammetry, LiDAR, Neural Rendering (NVIDIA Instant NeRF)
Coding Languages: C #, C++, HTML
Real-time Engines/VR Development: Unity 3D, Unreal Engine (4 and 5)
GIS: Map making, Plotting, Scripting, Data management, ArcGIS, QGIS
Brain Computer Interface: Brainwave driven applications, Bio-metrics, Neuroscience
Interests: VR/3D Simulation and Teaching, Constructionist Teaching, Gamification, Experiential Learning, Ancient Languages, Roman Epigraphy, Socio-Spatial Dynamics of Domestic Space, and the Ancient Family.
Core skills and interests
Outside of my typical academic circles I am often met with surprised looks when I mention that I am an historian/archaeologist. This is because I have garnered a reputation as a virtual reality (VR) developer and photogrammetrist not only within the video game industry in Toronto, but also through my work as a Principal Investigator in applied research at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. This assumption that my areas of specialization - Ancient History, Photogrammetry (3D scanning), and VR Development – are somehow incompatible or strange, stems from the presumption that the study of old things requires old, or otherwise non-technical, methodologies. The truth of the matter, however, is that history and immersive technologies go hand in hand. In the early stages of my PhD programme in Ancient History at York University, I started using photogrammetry methods to make 3D scans of archaeological objects, environments, and buildings for the archaeological projects on which I worked in the summers. The photo-realistic textures and geometries from the scans were not just mesmerizing, but more importantly allowed us to preserve perfectly each layer we excavated during during archaeological projects. It also permitted a level of fidelity previously impossible by means of line-drawings done by hand – the traditional method often used to record the details of each archaeological layer. Photogrammetry is digital preservation at its best. In the Fall of 2014, I was able to get a hold of the first consumer grade VR headset available, the Oculus Rift DK2, and immediately realized that VR was the perfect medium for immersing oneself in the 3D scans from these summer excavations. With the permission of the excavation directors of archaeological projects for which I was making the 3D scans, I began coding and building VR programs using the Unreal and Unity 3D real-time engines and the rest, as they say, is history. Since then, I have successfully built dozens of VR, computer based, and smartphone applications for teaching, visualizing, acquiring, and experiencing knowledge about the ancient world in new and exciting ways. Since 3D scanning and VR technology are both still in their infancy, the level of preservation and immersion provided by these technologies presents an immense opportunity not only for teaching history to students, but for teaching students how to do history in an increasingly digital world. In this respect, I see my career goal in digital history as three-fold: firstly, to preserve as many objects and environments from both the past and present as humanly possible. Secondly, to develop an accessible platform to store and disseminate these digital objects along with any necessary information about them. Thirdly, to develop new forms of pedagogy that incorporate digital history methods into the teaching environment and allow students to use these methods actively as they learn history. In this endeavour so far, I have created VR training programs that have been used for teaching at the University of Victoria (Victoria, BC) and York University (Toronto, Ontario), continued working with international archaeological projects to scan archaeological materials, and conducted teaching experiments with university students that integrate VR development and historical content, providing students with an opportunity to learn skills in both computer science and history concurrently. Especially with the introduction of computer coding to Canadian public-school curricula, coding will be a standard skill among students in our university classrooms within the next decade. As such, this will only increase the efficacy of introducing 3D design elements to history assignments, which I have demonstrated in my recent publication in the Journal of Classics Teaching (Forsyth, 2022).
Intellectual Statement about Digital history
Digital History philosophy
My development philosophy when creating VR programs, conducting 3D scans, making GIS maps, or even making a simple database is to ensure that the use-case of the technology always addresses or solves a problem in the research. This can be best summarized by the phrase “don’t create solutions for problems that don’t exist”. As a developer and researcher, I live by this statement. For example, 3D scanning is great for archaeology because excavation is a destructive process and with 3D scans we can now visualize past excavations in 3D and improve imaging capabilities beyond that of simple photography. Likewise, VR training for archaeology provides a sense of immersion comparable to actually being on-site, without the prohibitive costs of travel and relative inaccessibility of archaeological materials in the classroom. Another use-case for 3D scanning includes preserving ephemeral or changing landscapes of the city. A project recording street art/graffiti, for example, would benefit greatly from 3D scanning and VR visualization because it allows for the entire context of street art to be captured in the form of a digital twin, which can be revisited in 3D. This last example improves upon the limitations of conventional photo archives and provides future scholars with more information about the city. In all of these cases, problems of research have been addressed and historical study has been improved. In this way, scholars avoid making a gimmick of technology and provide a proper use-case for their digital tools.
Roman city teaching experiment
Institution: York University
Purpose: Pedagogical experiment in which students were taught to design 3D reconstructions of Roman public buildings and presented them to the class as an assignment.
Results: Published in Journal of Classics Teaching (Link)
In collaboration with Professor Benjamin Kelly at York University, I administered a teaching experiment to a third year (Hist/3140) class at York University in September of 2018. The class - titled "The City in the Roman World" - typically included a group assignment in which students conducted research on a number of Roman public building types (Temples, Baths, Porticos) and presented to the class on their assigned building in the form of an oral presentation. This year, however, the students would learn to use the Unity 3D real-time engine over two 3 hours tutorial sessions, make 3D reconstructions of their building types based on thorough research using a set of prefabricated building pieces, and present their results to the class in virtual reality (VR). The goal of this experiment was to test constructionist pedagogical approaches to ancient urban studies - i.e., whether students learn better by constructing objects related to the subject of learning. In particular, I wanted to see if the inclusion of immersive technologies (e.g., VR and real-time 3D engines) in the teaching of Ancient History would improve or lessen the learning outcomes of the traditional presentation based assignment. The results indicated that while the students' learning outcomes were favourable, some improvements could be made to the assignment and subsequent experiments would be necessary. Of particular value to this experiment is the clear need for more iterative and experiential teaching methods in the history classroom - in contrast to the sequential nature of teaching history courses in chronological or topical order. Giving students the agency to construct Roman buildings based on their research and providing feedback on their work without grading until the end of the assignment allows students to improve upon their skills without the pressure of immediate grading. By learning and applying 3D design skills and integrating historical data, students were able to hone skills in both history and computer science through iteration. Based on this experience, I have developed the following workflow to maximize the integration of historical and digital learning elements for digital history assignments at the university level:
Teaching With Game Design: Integrating Historical Content and Digital Methods - Blue boxes represent history related learning goals; red boxes represent technical/digital learning goals.
APASQ "Et après" Digital
Institution: York University; ToasterLab; Association des professionnels des arts de la scène du Québec (APASQ)
Purpose: The digitization of APASQ's "Et Après" art exhibit and deployment for public engagement (in-progress)
My role: Technical lead, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, Blender, Unreal Engine, Web GL.
In collaboration with Professor Ian Garrett of York University and Toasterlab, the APASQ "Et Après" Digital project seeks to digitize the Et Après art exhibit, curated by the Association des professionnels des arts de la scène du Québec, and build digital platforms so the public can access the digitized exhibit via smartphone, computer, and virtual reality (VR) in a shared environment. Originally existing as a physical art installation, Et Après explores issues that we must address in order to make a more sustainable scenography for future theatrical performances in the wake of the unprecedented ecological crises faced by our generation. The exhibit contains 20 pedestals that represent individual theatrical performances. Each pedestal consists of materials related to the themes of each performance and an I-pad with a video commentary on the topic of sustainability. For this project, I was tasked with digitizing the entire exhibit and reconstructing all aspects of it at a 1:1 scale. For this, we used a mixture of photogrammetry and manual 3D modelling, while taking care to maintain the thematic integrity of each piece of the exhibit. While this is a work in progress, one of the digital platforms allowing access to the exhibit has been completed and will be available in early 2023 via Mozilla Hubs. One of the challenges we faced was creating a visual language for guiding digital visitors through the digital twin of the exhibit. One method we used was to create separate rooms for the videos of each respective performance/pedestal, allowing for shared discussion of each exhibit separately in breakout-room style virtual spaces. Alternatively, the main room containing the entire exhibit can host up to 30 visitors concurrently and is a picture perfect reconstruction of the original exhibit, which no longer exists in physical form. In this respect, the APASQ Et Après Digital project has preserved an ephemeral art installation for future visitors to enjoy and made it accessible to the public around the world. Moreover, from a research perspective, the process of digitization has helped to solidify a proven workflow for creating digital twins that can be applied to similar digitization projects in any academic discipline. The establishment of such iterative workflows will be integral to teaching contemporary historians and historians-in-training the proper methodologies for 3D scanning and modelling techniques for preservation as well as deployment for public outreach. See the flowchart below for the workflow:
Digital Twin Workflow: Iterative Process - Ideal for teaching students digitization methodologies.
Ilduro Archaeological Project
Institution: University of Victoria, Ilduro Archaeological Project (Link)
Purpose: Archaeological Investigation of the Can Modolell and Can Mateu Archaeological sites in Cabrerra de Mar, Spain.
My role: Technical lead, VR development, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, C# coding, Blender, Unity 3D.
Programs: Ilduro VR Experience, Can Modolell Stratigraphy Program, Can Mateu Stratigraphy Program, Ses Lumetes Stratigraphy Program.
In collaboration with Professor Alejandro G. Sinner at University of Victoria, I have spent the last four years continually developing computer programs and virtual reality (VR) simulations for teaching about the Can Modolell and Can Mateu archaeological sites near Barcelona at Cabrera de Mar, Spain. Together Professor Sinner and I have conducted photogrammetry and consulted closely on the integration of archaeological scans into the VR and layer visualization programs. In his capacity as excavation director, Professor Sinner provides 3D scans for processing and describes to me his vision for the programs including desired functions, UI elements, menus, and methods for displaying information about the sites. After consultation, I build upon the existing programs in Unity 3D and have Professor Sinner provide feedback upon testing. The end products are Windows-based computer programs that allow users to view 3D scans of every layer of excavation at the Ildruo site between 2015-2021. Most importantly, is that these programs are specifically designed for teaching students. Given the prohibitive costs of travel and limited amount of archaeological materials that classical archaeology students can access in Canada, digitization provides a new opportunity to give students hands on experience interpreting and engaging with ancient artifacts and environments. The Ilduro VR experience was made available to students through the U Vic library and continues to provide students with hands on experience in archaeological interpretation. This is one of very few such programs, if not the only program, in Canada and represents the cutting edge of archaeological documentation methods and teaching. Having worked closely with Professor Sinner on these projects over the years, we have also perfected a workflow that maximizes the integration of both archaeological scans and the Unity 3D real-time engine. In doing so we have been able to create new and exciting methods for visualizing archaeological data which will have a lasting impact on the field of archaeology. See the flowchart for the workflow:
Workflow: Making Interactive Programs for History and Archaeology - Blue boxes represent archaeological research components; red boxes represent digital research components and methodologies.