Virtual Vikings

Grinnell’s Immersive Experiences Lab uses modern technology to bring the past to life — and bring life to the past.

October 07, 2022

The vivid language and breathtaking imagery of “Beowulf” bring the tales of heroic Vikings, persecuted kings, and hateful monsters to life, transporting readers to 6th-century Scandinavia where the epic poem is set.

Readers can easily picture themselves aboard a longship headed toward foreign shores, or in a mead hall, drinking, plotting, and scheming before a roaring fire.

These dream worlds, forged by the poet’s pen and planted in the reader’s mind, could arguably be called the first form of virtual reality. Visualizing the locations, people, and landscapes — imagining in pictures what has only been described in words — allows the reader to better connect with and understand the hero’s dilemma, and to make sense of the meaning behind the author’s words.

Screen shot from the VR with an image of a longship and data

Now, imagine not only seeing Beowulf’s great longship in your mind’s eye, but also experiencing it in real time — walking across its deck to closely inspect its construction, reaching out to touch the oars, and pondering with new practical insight how such a space could have held the 15 heroes who “outshoved then, Warmen the wood-ship, on its wished-for adventure.”

The Grinnell College Immersive Experiences Lab makes this type of experience possible for students and faculty.

Bringing Lessons to Life

“Immersion is a really important concept in education,” says David Neville, digital liberal arts specialist and project director of the Immersive Experiences Lab. “So much of education in a liberal arts context focuses on the personal experience and perspective of another person. Virtual reality allows us to immerse ourselves in these experiences and perspectives and develop a deeper understanding of the historical, cultural, and social influences that shape them.”

In a corner office in the basement of the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC), Neville grabs a couple hand-held controllers from his desk and a headset that he slips over his eyes. He appears to have forgotten that others are nearby in the small space, turning quickly and gesturing with the controllers, manipulating an environment that he alone can see.

A monitor nearby shows a flattened image of what appears to him in in three dimensions and surrounds him on all sides. He’s standing on a Viking longship — or a digital recreation of one — and moves from bow to stern, pausing to look at the oars and wondering aloud about them.

“The oars are really low to the deck,” he says. “It would be extremely difficult to row this ship in unison with 30 other people.”

He continues, uncovering the ship’s layers, revealing the keel, the sublayer, support beams, and planking — demonstrating in seconds the steps a master ship builder of the 6th century would have gone through to create such a craft.

“The attempt,” he explains, “is to make it as historically accurate as possible. Down to the bumps on the wood that appear to give it texture.”

This virtual ship is the result of an ongoing project that began in 2018 when students working in the Immersive Experiences Lab created a virtual rendition of a traditional Viking mead hall. These realistic and interactive models are now available as supplemental learning tools that help bring classes on “Beowulf” to life, as well as other courses that deal with this period.

Screen shot from the VR with an image of a mead hall with a partially open roof

“Virtual reality is a way to make lost or inaccessible places available to people,” says Tim Arner, associate professor of English. “These projects were born out of the sense that so much of ‘Beowulf’ takes place in this very specific type of space for which is there isn’t really a modern analogue. A two-dimensional drawing can’t accurately represent the space or really help students understand how that space contributes to the poem’s meaning in a way that ‘Beowulf’s’ first audiences would have.”

Future Meets Past

In October, Neville and Arner, along with Austin Mason, a lecturer in history and director of the Digital Arts and Humanities program at Carleton College, recently showcased their work at a conference in the northern German city of Schleswig, itself a major trading port during the Viking era.

Their presentation, “Reimagining the Viking Legacy in Virtual Reality: Race and Representation in America’s Viking Past,” will focus on the use of virtual reality technology to gain a better understanding of who the Vikings were and how they are represented today.

“Augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality can enhance teaching and learning by immersing users in recreated, remote, or even hypothetical environments as small as a molecule or as large as a universe, allowing learners to experience ‘reality’ from multiple perspectives,” says Neville. “The sense of presence provided by immersive experiences can be effective for contextualizing knowledge within a simulated real-world space and for promoting situated and embodied cognition.”

Arner adds, “A virtual reality experience allows students in 21st-century Iowa to get a sense of the space and scale of an 8th-century Viking structure or longship that could previously only be matched by traveling to Denmark or Germany to visit a physical reconstruction or original artifact.”

Arner and Neville have worked with several outside partners on this project, including the Historic and Cultural Society of Clay County in Minnesota; Carleton College of Northfield, Minnesota; and the Viking Museum in Busdorf, Germany. With Mason, they’ve also submitted a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant that would allow them to further develop the project and partner with even more groups to develop future ideas, or perhaps more accurately, ideas of the future.

“We’re hoping the proposal is accepted and we’re able to develop relationships with even more groups,” Arner says. “With virtual reality, lots of other spaces become available for exploration: the International Space Station, the human body, ancient Rome, etc. And with these immersive experiences, students will be able to process information in new ways that will be powerful supplements for the classroom experience.”

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