UNT doctoral student creating 3D environment for exhibition at museum in Mexico

Minotaur’s dance
La danza del minotauro (“Minotaur’s dance”) is one of 12 huge paintings in the Leopoldo Flores exhibit at the University Museum of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico that will soon be available to be viewed online in a 3D virtual environment.
Friday, August 6, 2010

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- University of North Texas graduate student Adriana D'Alba said she loved going to museums in her native Mexico and when she was studying overseas in Europe.

"I remember viewing a Van Gogh exhibit in Florence and thinking that I wished more people could see it," she said.

That's when D'Alba said she had the idea of creating 3D virtual replicas of museums that art and culture lovers could view through the Internet if they could not travel to see the exhibits. 

While many museums place selected exhibits and permanent collections on their website for viewing in a flat, 2D format, D'Alba, who is studying for her doctoral degree in learning technologies at UNT, said 3D virtual environment technology can provide an interactive viewing experience for a group of art or artifacts that is as close as possible to what museum patrons experience in person.

She is creating a 3D virtual environment for an exhibit of murals by contemporary Mexican artist and sculptor Leopoldo Flores that is on permanent display at the University Museum of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, or UAEM, in Toluca.

D'Alba received her undergraduate degree in graphic design from UAEM and her master's degree in 2D/3D motion graphics from the University of Glasgow. She is working with Dr. Greg Jones, UNT associate professor of learning technologies and her major professor, on the project at UAEM.

Jones recently received an award from the Joint UAEM-UNT Research Seed Funding Program for the research project, which will be the basis of D'Alba's doctoral dissertation research.

Using software created by Jones, D'Alba is creating the Flores exhibit in a 3D multiuser virtual environment. She and Martha Kuhn, a UAEM student in doctoral design, will later recruit UAEM students to be part of a pilot study that will compare the virtual environment to the actual museum environment. Half of the students will take the virtual tour of the Flores exhibit while the others tour the exhibit in person. D'Alba will document the experiences and preferences of the two groups in the pilot study.

She points out that a 3D virtual environment can provide education about an exhibit beyond that of an actual museum environment.

"In real life, you can't recreate a solar eclipse, but you can do that in a virtual environment for a science museum," she said. "You can also click on a piece of art in the virtual environment to hear additional information about it, or have a virtual guide to walk you through the exhibit, as you would walk through it if you were physically there."

 The Flores exhibit, painted in 1983, is called "The Minotaur in the Labyrinth." It consists of 10 huge paintings -- some as large as 15.6 feet by 6.8 feet -- that depict the Greek myth of the Minotaur, a dangerous half man/half bull who was locked in an intricate labyrinth by Minos, king of Crete. The king believed that escape from the labyrinth would be impossible. However, Minos' daughter finds the means for escape, which she shares with the Greek hero Theseus so he may kill the Minotaur.

D'Alba said that as soon as she saw the Flores exhibit at the University Museum, she knew it would be perfect for her dissertation research.

"I loved the paintings and the story behind them. In the myth, everyone thought the Minotaur was evil, but Flores' paintings reflect the Minotaur's sympathetic human nature," she said.

The exhibition room, she said, is laid out like a maze, with patrons walking along spiral staircases and ramps that lead them up three floors and down again. D'Alba said the 3D virtual environment will follow the same path that patrons take in the actual exhibit, so those who click on it will "walk" through the maze.

D'Alba will create the museum replica by the end of September. She will be assisted by Bertha Teresa Abraham Jalil, an investigator at UAEM's Research Center in Social Sciences and Humanities, and Jones, who has been researching 3D virtual museum environments since 1999 with Dr. Mark Christal of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum.

Jones said the development and maintenance of a virtual museum is an ideal way to provide student-centered learning environments.

"Virtual museums can be used to collaborate between classrooms, grade levels and even schools," he said. "When you think of 3D environments, you usually think of 3D games, like World of Warcraft. Those are the Ferraris -- very highly crafted for the one purpose of playing games. With museum environments, we're trying to build minivans for more general, diverse use."

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