Student Article: People and virtual cities

This report was written in response to Anthropocene XR Lab’s Talk Series with Professor Victoria Szabo, Director of Graduate Studies of the PhD Program in Computational Media, Arts and Culture at Duke University.

Chloe Alimurong, Class of 2025

People and virtual cities

The Anthropocene XR Lab’s Talk Series hosted Professor Victoria Szabo, Director of Graduate Studies of the PhD Program in Computational Media, Arts and Culture, and her presentation “Visualizing Cities in XR: Activating the Presence of the Past.” In this report, I will be reflecting on some of the major themes in her talk and in the area of design in the digital world.

In Professor Szabo’s talk about her work in visualizing cities in XR, I recognized the significance of digital representation—it keeps history and art alive. The digital world has become a “reality replacement” imitating the real world and the user’s relationships with real objects. There’s different modes of digital representation that Szabo mentions like 3D reconstructions and Augmented/Virtual Reality but it seems that isn’t enough. I mean, that research and technology isn’t at the stage to perfectly replicate the past. History is often lost, and technology can’t do its job without all the details. However, I think this leaves room for more creativity. We can make educated guesses or we can add modern interpretations of what the past would have looked like. I can see that imagination and creativity stray from the definition of activating the presence of the past. But, how do you define a person’s relationship to a physical space? I would say it’s the personal interpretation of what the environment means to them, which is different for everyone. I would argue that imagination and creativity in visualizing the past is essential to recreating an experience in the virtual space because those interpretations had kept the past alive.

I also wonder, how do you represent the past and its movement through time in the virtual sense? How do you choose which moment to capture in VR? Szabo says, whatever has the most amount of evidence on which you can infer upon. I think that’s realistic. I also think that it can be moments of the past that altered the course of the future or is special to a group or person. Which, in that case, you would need to infer a little bit more.

I worked on Virtual Black Charlotte this past summer with Professor Szabo and I learned more than just how to use ArcGIS. I learned the importance of personal or community testimony. When I would hear the stories of how the buildings of Charlotte prior to urban renewal from the people that lived there, I could hear how it wasn’t just about visualizing a city in an architectural sense, it was about the history, culture and success of the Black community. Studio 229, a space for creatives, built on Charlotte’s Black Wall Street is one of my favorite visualizations of the past. Studio 229 is a museum, a landmark, an office, and an event space all in one, a perfect blend of the past and present. And so, the VBC project was putting an image to the many stories these families have passed down for generations. The digital representation of a city also includes the people and their experiences of the city.