Chaco’s Legacy: The First Digital World from the Virtual Southwest Project

Chaco's Legacy: Salmon Pueblo

A scene from the Chaco’s Legacy exhibit portrays the village we now call Salmon in A.D. 1100.

When we started the Virtual Southwest project, we intended to employ the Unity 3D game engine to provide a real-time, persistent virtual world that would enable people to explore a vast digital model of the ancient Southwest. We thought it was a fantastic idea, and the ability to explore ancient places in this manner was very appealing. As we worked with the concept, however, we began to see that our approach to using a game engine to interpret archaeological data was flawed.

The flaw in our design came down to how to structure the ways that Virtual Southwest interacted with people. This type of design for human-computer interactions is commonly referred to as the “user interface.” We had selected a user interface based upon the most popular game interfaces for first-person-perspective games. In this kind of user interface, the screen becomes the person’s eyes, with the mouse used to point where the person is looking, and the W, A, S, and D keys control the person’s movement inside the virtual exhibit.

The initial Virtual Southwest user interface worked quite well for proficient gamers, but was rather confusing for everyone else. As our programmer, David Koontz, put it, “This is not going to pass the grandmother test.” The virtual world needed to be built such that someone with little computer experience would still be able to negotiate within it.

In addressing this problem, David ultimately created an elegant solution that is becoming a better tool for sharing virtual worlds than we first thought possible. We are now calling this tool Chronological Virtual Reality, or CVR. The CVR is designed to share archaeological research through virtual models of ancient landscapes, ancient places, and ancient objects. The first exhibit to be created within the CVR system is Chaco’s Legacy, which is currently being tested at Aztec Ruins National Monument and Salmon Ruins Museum and Research Center.

Chaco's Legacy Touchscreen

Visitors to Aztec Ruins National Monument explore the Chaco’s Legacy exhibit.

Learn more about the Chaco’s Legacy digital exhibit

Learn more about the Chronological Virtual Reality system

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