Worcester Polytechnic Institute's (WPI) Interactive Media & Game Development program and Higgins Armory Museum have won a highly competitive $50,000 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create an interactive "virtual joust" experience at the Worcester-based museum of medieval arms and armor.
WPI students (now alumni) Patrick Newell, Hyungjoon Kim, Justin Liu, and Steven Shidlovsky designed the Virtual Joust concept two years ago as part of their required, junior-year Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP). The NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant program, which supports pioneering projects that use technology to advance the humanities, will usher Virtual Joust to an engaging reality for museum-goers interested in medieval history. Designed to spur innovation, test new ideas, and act as a catalyst for further development, the grant will fund Virtual Joust's continued development and execution, which will be overseen this year by a new team of students from the IMGD program and WPI's Game Development Club.
Virtual Joust will premiere in fall 2011 as the permanent centerpiece of a Higgins Armory exhibition on the story of tournaments and jousting, from the military practice of medieval knights to the Renaissance Faire spectacles of today—with a modern twist; the lance of yesteryear will be ousted in favor of a sleek Nintendo Wii Remote. The remote will interact with a Flash-based game projected on a screen for an immersive and engaging experience of medieval jousting. And, as a bonus, the interactive game even allows players to create their own heraldic designs, which are incorporated into the gameplay visuals.
The project's principal investigator is Jeffrey L. Forgeng, adjunct associate professor of history at WPI and the Paul S. Morgan Curator at Higgins Armory. "The NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant program reflects the innovation and cross-disciplinary excellence that are hallmarks of WPI's unique project-based curriculum," he said. "Students at WPI become the innovators, entrepreneurs, leaders, and problem solvers that the world so desperately needs now. They not only come up with cutting-edge ideas, but they also develop real solutions to societal problems and design needs all over the world. Case in point, Virtual Joust brings together technology, humanities, and real-world outcomes in a way that is typical of what makes WPI such an outstanding university."
Presenting arms and armor for 21st-century museum-goers is a major challenge, according to Forgeng. "Modern visitors expect a high level of interactivity, but these historical artifacts were designed for interactions that are inherently dangerous and required years of training," he explained. "At the same time, these objects have tremendous potential to draw the general public into the museum experience—any museum knows that armor ranks with mummies and dinosaurs as one of the perennial crowd-pleasers."
The Virtual Joust experience pulls all this together for the digital age by putting visitors into the sabatons of a medieval knight, managing a virtual horse, armor, and lance to win fame in the jousting arena. In the process, they will be able to learn about the physical and cultural world of the knight—the equipment they used; the training they required; and the society that shaped their lives. The experience will enrich the visitor’s feeling for the living world behind the artifacts on display at the museum.
To make this possible, Virtual Joust will incorporate an online and onsite component. Before and after their onsite experience, visitors will be able to go online to explore the world of the knight. A hint of the possibilities is suggested by the pilot version's "heraldry generator," in which participants select their own heraldic designs, which then appear in the gameplay visuals. The integration of onsite and online elements represents a new frontier in the museum world.
To complement the project, Professor Forgeng is translating King Duarte of Portugal's treatise on horsemanship from the 1420s and the Spanish knight Pedro Monte's treatise on chivalric skills from the 1480s, the two most important historical sources on the techniques of jousting. IMGD professors Brian Moriarty and Britton Snyder will serve as consultants for the project’s technical and artistic aspects.