Imagine a young student stepping into a virtual replica of an ancient Roman villa, becoming the avatar of a soldier experiencing life under a great emperor like Hadrian. Or picture a curator exploring the soaring expanses of a newly designed art museum, all while seated behind a desk.

This is the new frontier of technological learning and cultural exploration and at its helm is John Fillwalk, director of Ball State's Hybrid Design Technologies unit (HDT). From inside the lab of the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts (IDIA), Fillwalk oversees a staff of designers and programmers continuously developing new ways to engage 3-D technologies best known for bringing to life some of today's most popular video games. According to Fillwalk, the potential is limitless for the expansion of their use. "In our labs we have been developing innovative hybrid solutions for digital humanities, cultural heritage, museums, art and design, and teaching and learning – using game engines to bridge both physical and virtual realities," he said.

Research and development to continue

The best indicator of Ball State's rise as leader in this developing field of research is the university's 2012 acquisition of the technology rights to the virtual world platform of Blue Mars from its creators, Avatar Reality Inc. Since 2009, Ball State has been the foremost developer of the platform, employing it for projects such as the creation of art and cultural heritage simulations. Creating the set of simulations in Blue Mars came out of an immersive learning experience for Ball State students, where they laser scanned several works of sculpture in the David Owsley Museum of Art. These 3-D digital models were then placed in a reconstruction of their original architectural settings, allowing visitors to virtually tour stunning, realistic re-creations of artworks in their historical contexts. The project included sculptures from the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair and centuries-old Japanese Buddha.

Blue Mars was again the platform of choice for Fillwalk and his team in creating the Virtual Middletown Project, a virtual living museum bringing to life aspects of the Lynd Middletown Studies of early 20th-century America. The living museum structure—much like Colonial Williamsburg— hosts historical characters, interactive objects and guided tours allowing visitors to immersively learn about the past.

A worldview for virtual design

Fillwalk's aim for virtual environments spans across the boundaries of time and place. For instance, the IDIA Lab, under contract by the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory (VWHL) at University of Virginia, is producing a multi-user 3-D simulation of Hadrian's Villa. The Villa is a UNESCO World Heritage site located outside of Rome and built in the 2nd century as a retreat for then-Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 A.D.). Fillwalk and the IDIA Lab are designing a virtual recreation of the entire villa site under advisement of a dozen international experts lead by Bernard Frischer, renowned archeologist and director of the VWHL. Frischer has described the IDIA Lab as "this country's undisputed leader in creating scientifically-authenticated virtual worlds.” This simulation, funded by the National Science Foundation, will consist of an expansive environment of buildings, avatars, diverse soundscapes, indigenous vegetation, ancient music and the digital mapping of its roads, tunnels, and gardens.

"The Digital Hadrian’s Villa simulation will be the most comprehensive and expansive digital humanities project of its type in the world – no simulation this scope and fidelity has ever been attempted before. Our intention is to have it serve as a national model for other virtual interpretation projects to come," Fillwalk said.

Another recent project he and his team have developed has been the commission to develop a virtual museum project for the new Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. Fillwalk and the lab created not only an advance presence called the Virtual Broad Art Museum (VBAM) but also were commissioned to create several virtual works of art which are currently on display at the VBAM website.

Where technology and art will intersect next is an ever shifting target but rest assured Fillwalk—whose latest personal work with IDIA includes a 2012 gesture-based virtual installation at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and the National Science and Technology Museum in Beijing, China—will remain ahead of the curve.

“We love what we do every day in our labs in Information Technology at Ball State. We are creating the future of human computer interaction—synthesizing humanities, science, and technology with design to enable new modes of collaboration, creation, and learning," Fillwalk said.