Building a real-time digital reliquary

Written in Old English by an anonymous poet, The Dream of the Rood is recognized as one of the oldest poems in the English language and among the most beautiful religious works. What many don't know is that much of the poem is carved in runes (ancient symbols) on a 17-ft high stone cross in a Scottish church.

The 8th century Ruthwell Cross is historically linked to two other crosses: the 11th century Brussels Cross, made of oak and thought in the Middle Ages to contain a relic of the "True Cross" from Christ's crucifixion, and the 8th century Bewcastle Cross in England, which is carved of stone. All three bear elements that are thematically related to The Dream of the Rood poem.

In the past, Anglo-Saxon historians were required to travel to Belgium and Great Britain to study these artifacts in all three dimensions. Despite the gains of modern digital photography, the crosses are difficult to capture photographically because of their condition and inconvenient locations. Additionally, even a very high-resolution image cannot capture subtle details, like the techniques used to carve the cross.

"It's not 100 per cent clear whether or not the poem was carved when the Ruthwell Cross was carved," explains U of L English professor Dr. Daniel O'Donnell. Being able to examine the crosses in all three dimensions is the only way for researchers to assess this and many other questions.

To improve access to the objects, a University of Lethbridge team is co-ordinating an international effort to create a high-tech alternative. O'Donnell, a medieval literature specialist, is collaborating with U of L professors James Graham (New Media) and Dr. Wendy Osborn (Mathematics and Computing Sciences), computer programmer and U of L graduate Joel Rigby, and researchers from the University of Leeds and the Università degli studi di Torino, to create an online environment that will allow researchers to view and interact with the crosses virtually, in real-time and in three dimensions.

"After examining the multitude of available new media technologies used by humanities researchers and wanting to create an innovative online system that would significantly improve the standard of interactivity, visual accuracy and authenticity-of-experience, we settled on developing a proprietary digital information retrieval system that would work in combination with a collection of next-generation video game technologies," Graham explains. "We felt that the third dimension was the next logical direction for hypermedia-based research to go, as it allows users to see and intuitively interact with virtual representations of objects they wish to know more about."

To render the crosses in 3-D, high-tech laser scanners will be used to capture every detail of the historic artifacts. The digital scan files will then be converted from the 3-D x,y,z data into a highly efficient texture files – called normal maps – that will then be applied to the surface of the 3-D cross models.

The Visionary Cross research group is also completing an innovative system that will allow researchers to interface directly with external online databases while navigating within the 3-D game environment. Students and researchers examining the relics within the virtual game environment will be able to directly access specific online database information – and even add to that database – simply by clicking on the relevant location on the 3-D virtual object.

Not surprisingly, the project will need heavy-duty technological infrastructure. That's why Osborn, who is the director of the Southern Alberta Digital Library and an expert in data management, is examining the best ways to store the data involved to make its retrieval efficient.

"We're still working on proof-of-concept, so we don't have huge amounts of data yet, but when we go online and people start to add their own data, it could be terabytes of data that come into this," she explains.

To put this in perspective: 1 terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes (GB), and your personal computer probably has about between 1-5 GB of memory. In addition to the massive volume of information, the project will also involve many different kinds of data, which also presents a tremendous challenge, Osborn says.

The Visionary Cross Project is being funded by a two-year, $23,000 grant that Graham, O'Donnell and Osborn received from the U of L Community of Research Excellence Development Opportunities (CREDO) program. The researchers have also applied to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for funding for the next stages of the project.

While the Visionary Cross Project may seem like a radical diversion from most humanities research, O'Donnell explains that humanities researchers have relied on computers since the middle of the 20th century for things like statistical analysis and library cataloguing. But humanities researchers haven't just been the benefactors of technology – they've also created it.

"For example, an awful lot of what allows XML to work essentially comes out of work done in humanities computing," O'Donnell says.