Monday, May 30, 2005
Review of The Virtual World Project: first impressions ::

This project, (already blogged by Danny at Deinde and Jim at Biblical Theology) as its opening page indicates offers “a virtual tour of ancient sites along the Eastern Mediterranean”, it aims to be multimedia (as the interactive map and timeline which appear as soon as you choose “enter” suggest) and educational since it claims “Archaeological and material remains can transform the teaching of antiquity” (About the project)

As both a teacher, who tries to make use of interesting audio and visual resources to supplement words, and as someone who seeking to use electronic media to provide information this project is of great interest to me – so I guess to readers of SansBlogue – therefore I am going to review the site in some depth over coming days/weeks.

A first look

The approach of richly visual media presented in ways that encourage the user to explore is brilliant. I can imagine all sorts of ways to encourage students to make use of this resource.

The website already covers several of the most significant iron age sites in Israel and sites in Greece and Turkey too (I’m an Old Testament teacher, so forgive my parochialism). Danny Z can remark:
It is a little unfortunate that Jerusalem is not yet included, but it will come, and in the meantime, this site is impressive enough to forgive it not being done yet.
And, of course there is still a huge amount of work to be done! But just look at what is there, imagine how you can use it in teaching, or to substitute for costly travel, and be thankful for Ronald Simkins, John O’Keefe and their teams at Creighton. Give thanks too for the funders: Wabash Center, and various parts of Creighton University.

A more detailed critique

For a first look I chose Lachish as a sample site to visit.

Selecting the High Resolution Virtual Tour option at the top right of the toc.html screen (which is where you arrive on clicking “enter” on the opening screen, opens a new browser window designed in such a way that it uses most of a 1024x768 screen (it is not fullscreen at this common resolution, nor can the window size be adjusted).

Similarly selecting Low Resolution Virtual Tour opens a new window at a little less than 800x600 resolution.

These windows are divided into four frames so that the material each presents can be independently changed or coordinated. This is a flexible and convenient layout, though it requires that the user spend some time learning how the user interface works.

The top left frame (under a title bar that identifies the site you have chosen to visit) invites you to “choose the location on the site where you would like to begin the virtual tour”, which highlights the feel of exploring. A site plan in the frame below (a plan of the ancient tel not the website!) makes this easy and meaningful, for your choice has a sense of spatial relationship with the other options. Areas that are active are not only named, but highlighted on mouseover. Graphical buttons on either side of the site plan allow access to various features. These include useful information like The “panoramic images” are QuickTime files and open in a new window of the same size as the site window. These QuickTime “movies” which allow one to simulate turning on the spot, or looking up or down, and thus beginning to explore the location. Zooming in or looking wider is also possible (though in Firefox on Windows XP the controls required scrolling as the window overlapped the popup which could not be resized).

The upper right frame shows an image of the location currently selected. The alternative to this image is a key to the colour coding of the site plan showing different strata. The original image seems to be simply a device to avoid an empty screen, since selecting a picture from the list of images (available from the site plan) opens these in a new popup window.

The lower right frame holds textual description of the location, and links that change the image above. Since changing the overall window size is disabled one cannot use the facility offered by browsers to resize the html text with the aim of making it more easily visible as there will then be too few words to each line. On a high resolution monitor (such as my couple of year old laptop) this text is too small for comfort. So the ability to change the window size, and therefore the display size of this text would be useful.

I may have missed some significant difference but the “cubic/spherical images” seem to me to be the same as panoramic images. Both open on clicking a named link, but not by clicking a thumbnail, which seemed to this user to be the natural way.

First Impressions

Despite the niggles, expressed (perhaps too clearly) above (I am an inveterate examiner of the teeth of gift horses) this site is exciting. I am already imagining ways I can use it in teaching. The niggles are more suggestions of ways the site could easily be made more accessible and usable by a wider range of visitors. The presenters are to be congratulated not only on preparing a superb resource, and on making it freely available, but also for giving thought for the usability of their site at different screen resolutions and connection speeds.
The use of Flash means that URLs cannot be cited, and the page itself gives no indication of how it might be referenced, an issue for online multimedia educational and scholarly resources. RETURN

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