Ola Nordmann Goes West – A speculative research project using virtual world technology

A guest contribution by Louise Sorensen. Ola Nordmann Goes West was a speculative research project conducted at the University of Sheffield in the UK between March 2012 and January 2014. The main aim was to investigate whether the use of virtual world technology can make the general public engage with a historical event. By engagement we mean actively contributing personal stories and memories related to the historical event to help enhance the official record found in the history books. To test this it was necessary to choose a historical event that 1) has strong resonance with ordinary people today and 2) lends itself well to 3D modelling in a virtual environment. The event chosen was 19th-century mass migration from Norway to America (around 800,000 people emigrated between 1825 and 1914), to be personified in the virtual world by the fictional peasant “Ola Nordmann” as he travelled from his farm near Voss in Western Norway to New York. There were two reasons for choosing this event:

First, descendants of the Norwegian immigrants have a strong interest in their history and engage enthusiastically with heritage organisations such as Sons of Norway. Some also devote a lot of time to researching their family history and have a thorough knowledge of their ancestors’ personal experiences through that research. It was therefore obvious that drawing on their knowledge would provide more personal recollections of the migration experience, so-called micro-histories, and greatly complement the grand narrative modelled in the virtual world.

Second, the migration itself, the actual journey of thousands of kilometres, has not received as much attention as the background to people leaving Norway and their subsequent lives in America. The journey also suited a virtual world environment well. Virtual worlds only render a user’s immediate surroundings as they move around the environment (draw or render distance), making everything beyond that “invisible”. This apparent technological limitation actually worked in our favour and helped imitate the migrants’ constant sense of venturing into the unknown.

Focusing on the journey itself, rather than Norway or America, also meant the opportunity to further investigate the English leg of the migration which has received very little attention. A large number of migrants travelled via English ports, mainly Hull and Liverpool, but we know so little about what happened while they were in England. It was hoped that people interested in local history and transport enthusiasts would be able to shed some light on the infrastructure surrounding the transportation of thousands of transmigrants. An added bonus would be to unearth descendants of migrants who never made it to America and instead stayed behind in England, but that was an entirely aspirational aim as we had no idea of knowing how often this happened. With this emphasis on the transmigration, the route through the virtual world is as follows: Voss – Bergen – North Sea ship – Hull – Liverpool – Atlantic ship – New York.

All locations were modelled on descriptions and images of what they looked like in the late 19th century. Due to the technical restrictions discussed below, the cities were scaled back and only had their port areas reconstructed with a few landmark buildings thrown into the mix. The ships were full models of actual emigrant ships and we spent the most time constructing the area below deck where 3rd class passengers travelled.

The steerage section where the immigrants travelled between Liverpool and New York.

The steerage section where the immigrants travelled between Liverpool and New York.

There was no doubt that the project had a large prospective audience, but whether they would engage with the virtual world was uncertain. Using virtual worlds to generate rather than disseminate knowledge, i.e. the world was a research tool, not an educational one in the traditional sense, was a novel approach that had not been tested in the manner we proposed before.

Soon after launch it became obvious that working with virtual world technology had a number of challenges. From a development perspective, 3D modelling is a time-consuming process and producing realistic models is a skill that requires years of refinement. As a publicly-funded research project, we could not compete with the level of expectation set by multi-million dollar video games and had to think of other ways to enhance the virtual environment. One way was to add as much non-3D content to the world as possible. Images, for example, were used as backdrops to create the impression of depth – a technique known as “billboarding”.

A user avatar looks at the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, New York. The Statue is an example of “billboarding”.

A user avatar looks at the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, New York.
The Statue is an example of “billboarding”.

This was also a different way of engaging with users as their personal photographs became part of the historical environment. A similar method was used to display personal stories along the journey as seen in the Emigrant Waiting Room in Hull:

The inside of the Emigrant Waiting Room next to Hull Paragon Railway Station. The frames on the wall are interactive stories.

The inside of the Emigrant Waiting Room next to Hull Paragon Railway Station.
The frames on the wall are interactive stories.

 

Additional historical context was added in the shape of information boxes. When clicking on a box, the user could read a bit more about the historical background of the migration and what a particular location would have been like at the time. These scripts were also added to objects such as luggage trunks, kitchen utensils, books, etc. as a way of explaining their historical relevance.

Another challenge was to make people buy into an experimental project and get them to take part in its actual development. From the outset the intention was to open the virtual world in an unfinished state to mirror the actual stages of the migration. When the world went live in October 2012, only Ola’s farmstead near Voss, the road to Bergen and a few basic structures in Bergen existed.

Bergen under development on the left. The finished product on the right.

Bergen under development on the left. The finished product on the right.

It was hoped that people would help finish the world by suggesting buildings and objects they would like to see included. Unfortunately this idea backfired a little and the incomplete world failed to capture many of the early users’ imagination. When surveyed, some responded that they would return at a later date when the world was finished and the entire journey could be experienced.

To ensure the broadest reach it was decided to post contributions received from the public on our blog as well as in the virtual world. The blog quickly proved popular with many commenting that they enjoyed reading the “unofficial” histories of Norwegian migration. The blog also showed us that using micro-histories to enhance the grand historical narrative is a method that appeals to the public and. However, the introduction of the blog only perpetuated the issues we had with user retention in the virtual world. People could now bypass it completely and unfortunately many did.

The virtual world of “Ola Nordmann Goes West” was built in OpenSimulator, not Second Life, and we therefore managed user registrations ourselves. To obtain a username and password for the virtual world, it was necessary to register on our website and we would then process this within 24 hours. The next step was to download a separate plugin called a viewing client that would manage to connection to the virtual world and render the environment to the user.

This was quite a complicated process but we did our best to make it as easy as possible. Detailed installation instructions were provided, and project team members were on hand to offer personal assistance if needed. Despite all this, many users never actually logged in to the virtual world after registering. They lost interest soon after submitting an account request and never returned. Those that did log in to explore the virtual world spent on average 15 minutes there, indicating that the environment itself was not the main problem – keeping people interested until we could deal with their registration was. The issue of user retention is very important for anyone planning to use virtual world technology to engage with the public and the following should be considered.

Who is the target audience? Many of our users were middle-aged or older and found the technology very advanced. In comparison with other kinds of technology they were used to, such as social media or family tree software, the viewing client’s interface was much less intuitive and the avatar difficult to manoeuvre. If the target audience had been a younger age group it is very likely that the level of engagement would have been markedly higher.

Will the virtual world run properly on most computers? To really experience what a virtual world has to offer, the PC used must have substantial processing powers and a decent graphics card. In the time passed between submitting the grant proposal and actual launch, laptops and notebooks gained a significant share of the home computing market and desktop computers declined. Those o our users who only had a laptop or notebook were more likely to suffer poor quality graphics and lag when in-world. The only way to combat this – apart from turning off many of the visual effects which helped create a presence in the world – was to keep the number of 3D models at a level where performance was not compromised but historical accuracy was to some extent.

An example of the big different in graphics quality users experienced.

An example of the big different in graphics quality users experienced.

As the pros and cons of virtual world technology became obvious, the “Ola Nordmann” team launched a small pilot project to test whether WebGL would be a viable future alternative. The WebGL demonstrator featured one of the ships from the original virtual world and some of the buildings from Bergen. The aim was to see whether being able to access the virtual environment directly through an internet browser without a separate download would be more appealing to users. It was also thought that the interface itself, without an avatar and complex menus would remove a significant barrier to engagement and pre-empt the switch many are making to mobile devices. From a more general perspective, no one else had yet employed WebGL in historical research so we were pleased to break new ground in that respect.1

The final question for those contemplating using virtual worlds in research or similar projects is: Is the purpose of the world clear? A virtual world is not a game but the game-like appearance of it will confuse some users unfamiliar with the technology. The lack of tasks and structured direction in the virtual environment can be daunting, and if the main purpose is “just” social networking, then it is worth considering using a customisable social media platform instead. Our purpose was to let the rudimentary journey prompt people’s memories as they explored it and then letting them add those memories using the tools available in-world, e.g. 3D interactive models. In that respect the virtual environment had a dual purpose that could not be tested using other means.

“Ola Nordmann Goes West” has been an interesting test case in the use of virtual world technology in historical research. We found that the technology has immense potential to create immersive 3D environments but that time and money in large measures are needed to achieve this. We also discovered that users must be able to access the virtual environment quickly and easily. If not, many will lose interest. WebGL seems to be the best solution to this at the moment, if its stripped-back features suffice, and we would welcome more research into this.


Louise Sorensen is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute where she also completed her PhD in the History of Linguistics in 2010. She is interested in the historical and linguistic experiences of 19th-century Scandinavian emigrants to America.


  1. This experience has been taken forward to an offshoot project about modern-day Nordic immigrants in the UK. []

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