Feeling Antiquity

Imagine looking at a piece of art in a museum and then suddenly being transported to its century of origin with just the switch of a Virtual Reality (VR) headset. Well, Lorena Lopez, a first-year graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Interactive Media, has done just that, and right here at the Lowe too.

Lopez, who completed her undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University and spent almost four years designing what she called “low-tech” interactives for the Miami Children’s Museum, knew she was meant for more.

“I knew there was sort of a gap in my education as far as the digital interactivity and I really wanted to see what else could be done,” said Lopez. “I wanted to see what else I could do to heighten my exhibit design skills.”

Lopez said UM’s interactive media program boasted everything she was looking to learn including UX and UI design, coding and virtual and augmented reality work. This semester, Lopez’s Creating Virtual Worlds class, for their final project, was tasked with building some sort of virtual world that could be experienced via a virtual reality headset.

The stars aligned for Lopez and her project when art history professor Karen Matthews approached Lopez’s class about a collaboration with her own class, Animating Antiquities. Matthews’ class was learning to create 3-D models and prints of antique pieces of art, a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon CREATE Grants Program.

Lopez explained that Matthews wanted someone to create a virtual world that would contextualize these pieces, because, as Lopez put it, “you can see it in a museum, but in a museum, you don’t really see where it was used.”

The piece Lopez and Matthews chose to work with is called the Calyx Krater – basically a mixing bowl for wine from 4th century BCE.

“This item would’ve been used during an event called ‘Symposium’ in Ancient Greece, and it was put in the middle of a room,” said Lopez. “It would be used ceremonially to mix wine during social events that would happen after dinner where men would sit around the room and talk about politics, poetry, things like that.”

So, Lopez got to work in re-creating this particular scene in VR. With the help of Matthews’ class research, she built a virtual room around the vase, including recliners where these men may have been lounging, laughing and drinking wine. Lopez said she wanted to make the world seem like it was touched by humans, though she didn’t feel she had the skills to create the humans just yet. Instead, she added papers as if somebody had been writing and even included a pair of sandals to make it look like somebody had taken off their shoes.

When the project, Feeling Antiquity, was unveiled at the Lowe Art Museum on April 25, Lopez laughed saying, “everybody kept pointing out the sandals. I just wanted to add that human element to it and make it feel like the past isn’t so far away.”

But Lopez didn’t just stop at VR. The grad student said she was inspired to take her project to the next level after experiencing a Disney Springs attraction.

“It’s called the Void, and basically it’s an immersive VR video game,” said Lopez. “It’s a Star Wars game, but you’ll walk through these spaces with these buttons and levers that open to different rooms, and the buttons are really there but you’re in virtual space the whole time.”

Thanks to the magic of Disney, Lopez was able to spin this idea in an educational way, using a 3D print-out of the vase so that when you “touch” the vase in the virtual world, you are also touching the vase in real life.

“I was asking myself the question: what is the one thing that museums and virtual reality have in common?” Lopez said. “There is no touch. So, I wanted to create an experience where you would be adding touch to both these things.”

Needless to say, Lopez’s project was well-received amongst the UM community at large. The audience at the Lowe was stunned as they wandered through Ancient Greek history and were able to actually feel a virtual vase. Canes Film Festival even awarded Lopez with the Best Virtual Experience Award. What began with Lopez’s intense passion for technology, became a perfect storm of collaboration, innovation and an amazing product to show for it.