Digital Characters in Cultural Heritage Applications

Digital Characters in Cultural Heritage Applications

Spyros Vosinakis (University of the Aegean, Syros, Greece)
DOI: 10.4018/IJCMHS.2017070101
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Digital characters are software entities that look and act like real or imaginary creatures in a computer-generated environment. They are considered an important element of cultural heritage applications that can increase user motivation and engagement in various ways. This paper presents a review of the use of digital characters for communicating and disseminating cultural heritage. It explores the wide range of applications that make use of digital characters, and attempts to identify how the characters are used, what are their main features, and how are they contributing to the overall experience. The aim of this review is to inform about the range of possible features and use cases to consider, and to identify the positive aspects, drawbacks and critical issues of using digital characters. The paper presents an overview of current state of the art in digital character design and implementation approaches, the usage of characters in cultural heritage applications arranged in a set of dimensions, and a discussion about prospects and pitfalls of digital character technology.
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1. Introduction

Interactive applications built with novel technologies such as virtual worlds, augmented reality and serious games have the capacity to serve as dissemination and learning platforms for history, culture and archaeology (Anderson et al., 2010; Gaitatzes et al., 2001). They may offer affordances such as high-quality visualization of digital content, real-time simulation of realistic or imaginary environments, natural and intuitive user interactions, seamless blending of physical and virtual content, and single- or multi-user embodiment. These characteristics allow interactive applications to represent existing or reconstructed cultural artifacts and places in high detail for local or remote visitors, enhanced by features such as the superimposition of associated descriptions and media. Added interactivity allows users to freely navigate and explore the content, and provides engaging features such as interactive digital stories or mini-games related to the historical and cultural context of the subject. Applications of this kind not only let people closely observe reconstructed buildings or artifacts, but can also serve as a motivating means to supplement people’s knowledge and increase their interest in culture.

Digital characters are an important element of this type of applications that can add significant cultural value and increase user motivation and engagement in various ways. Reconstructed buildings or cities feel empty, inanimate spaces without the presence of “living” digital humans moving and acting inside them. Furthermore, digital characters can recreate an appropriate context for cultural artifacts and monuments. They may demonstrate how a work of art or a building was constructed, how an object of the past was used for specific activities, they may wear proper clothes and accessories, perform a ritual inside a temple, etc. Even more important is the use of characters for presenting intangible aspects of cultural heritage. They could simulate the daily life and activities, customs and rituals of ancient or lost cultures, and also re-enact theatrical plays, dances and other types of cultural performance. Finally, digital characters are also an engaging and natural form of user interface for this type of applications. A virtual human could assist users in navigating inside a large museum and probably present further information, it could discuss with users and answer their questions about the content they are experiencing, and it could also act as a tutor to test their knowledge in an engaging way through quizzes and mini-games.

There is a wide usage of digital characters in cultural heritage applications, but their functional characteristics have significant differences. Depending on the type and goals of each application, the characters have different design elements regarding their interface with humans, their interaction capabilities, their believability and their autonomy. Up to now these different manifestations have not been collected and documented in a systematic review. There are a number of older reviews about virtual humans and animated agents that offer a broad overview of design and implementation issues and research potentials, but they are not focused on the specific needs of cultural heritage applications (Luck & Aylett, 2000; Gratch et al., 2002; Kasap & Magnetat-Thalmann, 2008). On the other hand, more recent reviews on virtual environments and serious games in cultural heritage are available in the bibliography, which, however, consider broader design aspects, such as the game genre and gameplay, and do not specifically focus in digital characters (Anderson et al., 2010; Mortara et al., 2014; Paliokas & Sylaiou, 2016). This study aims to fill this apparent gap.

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