Summer Research Partnership in Digital Arts and the Humanities: The Virtual Viking Longship Project

29 September 2023
By Madeline Smith ‘24

In the summer of 2023, Madeline Smith ‘24, alongside her coworkers, Lily Haas, Kritika Pandit, and Jack Ochoa-Andersen, worked with Austin Mason to develop a virtual reality Viking Longship experience in collaboration with Grinnell College, the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County (HCSCC), the Viking Museum Haithabu (VMH) and Vanderbilt University. The summer goal was to create a rowing minigame which would eventually find a place in the larger Viking Longship experience where users could play informative games, explore the parts of a Viking ship, and learn about authentic Viking culture and craft. Maddie shared her experience with the Humanities Center. 

“This summer was a huge learning experience for me. Our team received a grant which was created to fund this VR Viking Longship project but which was also meant to be put towards the creation of a project management template which can be recycled for onboarding processes of similar VR projects in the future. From the beginning, our team discussed the relationship between independent and collaborative work as we all brought distinct skills from experience in computer science, history, project management, and art. I spent much of the summer working independently to learn a completely unfamiliar and notoriously complicated 3D modeling software, Blender. 

I’ve learned through my many trials and errors how to be more organized, exact and careful in my work. I come from a background of drawing and painting, and love it for its loose and expressive format, so the switch to exact digital recreation was definitely outside of my comfort zone. 

My first assignment, after watching some introductory tutorials, was to tackle replicating the Hedeby Chest, a Viking chest that might have served as a seat while rowing. After careful research I began chopping away at a mesh block. It ended up looking like a log with legs. There was so much at that point that I didn’t know, it was frustrating to watch other online artists creating insanely complex models while I still couldn’t make a box out of a cube. Ultimately I started all over again, bitter over what I saw as wasted time. Looking back now, I’m proud of myself for continuing and wouldn’t consider my time wasted. The chest is now beautifully textured, can open and close, and is the seat in our final project this summer, the rowing minigame.

Slowly I’m starting to feel more and more confident using this software. After hours of tutorials I finally feel as if I can stretch my creative muscles in a way that I find gratifying and fulfilling. Seeing our final product of the summer coming together has reminded me of how far our research team has come, and although I spoke mainly to my individual experience with Blender, I know none of us could have come close to this final product without the support of one another. 

I’m really grateful looking back on this project which taught me so much about my own resilience, flexibility, and creativity.”