Playful interfaces to the archive and the embodied experience of data

Publication Date23 Dec 2019
AuthorRachel Hendery,Andrew Burrell
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Playful interfaces to the
archive and the embodied
experience of data
Rachel Hendery
Digital Humanities Research Group,
Western Sydney University, Parramatta, Australia, and
Andrew Burrell
School of Design, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the possibility for the galleries, libraries, archives and
museums sector to employ playful, immersive discovery interfaces for their collections and raise awarenessof
some of the considerations that go into the decision to use such technology and the creation of the interfaces.
Design/methodology/approach This is a case study approach using the methodology of research
through design. The paper introduces two examples of immersive interfaces to archival data created by the
authors, using these as a springboard for discussing the different kinds of embodied experiences that users
have with different kinds of immersion, for example, the exploration of the archive on a flat screen, a data
caveor arena, or virtual reality.
Findings The role of such interfaces in communicating with the audience of an archive is considered, for
example, in allowing users to detect structure in data, particularly in understanding the role of geographic or other
spatial elements in a collection, and in shifting the locus of knowledge production from individual to community. It
is argued that these different experiences draw on different metaphors in terms of usersprior experience with more
well-known technologies, for example, aperformancevs a toolvs a background to a conversation.
Originality/value The two example interfaces discussed here are original creations by the authors of this
paper. They are the first uses of mixed reality for interfacing with the archives in question. One is the first
mixed reality interface to an audio archive. The discussion has implications for the future of interfaces to
galleries, archives, libraries and museums more generally.
Keywords Libraries, Archives, Linguistics
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Librarians and archivists have long recognised that different interfaces are needed for the
diverse kinds of audiences that engage with an archive (Miller, 1942; Stevens, 1950;
Tagliacozzo and Kochen, 1970; Bates, 1977; Efthimiadis, 1990). This paper describes how
immersive technologies such as mixed reality, together with ubiquitous computing, open up
new possibilities for creating such interfaces, and discusses two examples of playful,
immersivearchival interfaces the authorshave created. An exampleof the differing needs and
expectationsof different users can be seenby comparing scholars conductinga targeted study
to users who want a big pictureover view of an archives holdings. Researchers trying to
answer a specific research question need a complex, flexible search interface, or a way to
export the data they need into a form they can input into their preferred software. Theywill
generally be willing to dig around in a database or catalogue to find exactly what they need,
even if it is not apparent on firstglance, or requires several hours of theirtime. Users who are
simply curiousabout the holdings of the archive, on the otherhand, will have less patience for
complex interfaces or hidden information. Users on a mobile device or with low bandwidth
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 76 No. 2, 2020
pp. 484-501
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-05-2019-0078
Received 3 May 2019
Revised 4 October 2019
Accepted 6 October 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Some of the authorswork discussed here has received funding from the Australian Research Council
(DP180100893, Waves of Words: Mapping and Modelling Australias Pacific Ties) and from the
Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (Transdisciplinary and Innovation Grant).
will not want to have to downloadlarge files in order to explore, for example, audio or video
holdings. Users less familiar with the content of the archive may not be interested in
searching,sorting or filtering by key terms thatmay, on the other hand, be essential to domain
experts. These different needs mean that multiple different ways intothe archivesholding
may be necessary for the different stakeholder communities.
Moving on from traditional interfaces, the rise of virtual reality (VR) and other mixed reality
devices as affordable, ubiquitous platforms has opened up new possibilities for interactive,
experimental interfaces to archival data. An interface no longer has to be something a user sits at a
computer to access. Rather, interfaces can break out of the computer into the world around us, and
users can enter the world of the computer and become part of the interface. Objects in the physical
world can become markers or sites of interaction; natural movements or user actions such as
gestures, or stepping, can be picked up by cameras, infrared monitoring devices, or pressure plates
in a designated space; even a usersphysicallocationingeographicalspacecanbeusedtotrigger
relevant information in textual, audio and visual form. With the aid of a VR headset or a purpose-
built space, users can step into a virtual world where everything they interact with is computer
generated. The possibilities for different kinds of archive interfaces are therefore no longer limited
to two-dimensional database frontends to be navigated with keyboard and mouse.
This paper discusses two case studies of VR visualisations of archival (linguistic) data as a
springboard for discussing the affordances of different immersive technologies in this space.
The potential of a variety of different technologies to access virtual environments for visualising
archival data is compared; the design and implementation process for the virtual environments
as immersive data spaces are described; and conclusions are drawn about how such interfaces
to an archive function as both technologies of information organisation, and embodied physical
experiences. The discussion of the two quite different case studies and their realisations across a
number of different kinds of platforms is intended to showcase a wide range of possibilities for
such immersive interfaces, and to demonstrate the need for any archive considering
implementing mixed reality approaches to adopt design principles, kinds of visualisations and
platforms that best suit their goals, audiences and the resources they have available.
2. Design framework
The use of virtual interfaces to a library or archive is something that has long been
anticipated. Poulter (1993) describes a virtual reproduction of library or archive shelves for
users to digitally browse among. Some libraries have even created such virtual spaces in
platforms such a s Second Life (see Chow et al., 2010; Riha, 2010). Morerecently, it has become
relativelycommon for archives to experiment with layingout documents and images before a
user in a virtual space (see Lugmayr et al., 2016 or the numerous examples described in
Whitelaw,2015). In all of these cases, however, theintent appears to be to connect the user to a
simulated archiveexperience, either throughvirtual shelves and stacks, or by simultaneously
displaying largecollections of primarily visualand textual materials on a kind of virtualtable
or wall. An alternative approach would be to background the archives mediating role, and
attempt to connect the user more directly with the data in an experience that more closely
approximates either the environment from which the data originate, or the research
environment in whichthe data are typically analysed. These are the approaches taken in the
case studies discussed in this paper. This is particularly effective in the case where the
archival holdings, as in one of these case studies, consist of audio recordings rather than
visual or textual information. The example described here is potentially the first VR
experience to use spa tialized audio as an int erface for informati on discovery and retrie val.
This approach is situated in a theoretical framework from the first waveof mixed
reality. In the development of thinking about VR interface design through the 1990s to the
present day, there has been a shift from what Laurel et al. (1994) called the no interface
paradigm, to an approach that draws heavily on two-dimensional interfaces that users are

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