Virtual vikings set sail with help from Carleton research partnership

The Virtual Viking Longship Project uses virtual reality and 3D modeling to explore the significance of Viking Age longships, while documenting the process for other institutions.

Josey MacDonald ’25 13 October 2023 Posted In:
The virtual longship in the process of development
A virtual longship in the process of developmentPhoto:

Viking ships and virtual reality might seem oceans apart, but a recent partnership between students and faculty at Carleton and Grinnell College is bringing the two together. The Virtual Viking Longship Project is bringing Viking ships to virtual seas, charting a course for creative and powerful educational experiences.

The Virtual Viking Longship Project is a research initiative funded by a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project is led by David Neville and Timothy Arner from Grinnell along with Austin Mason, assistant director for digital humanities in the Humanities Center and lecturer in history at Carleton.

The project uses 3D models and virtual reality (VR) to explore the cultural and social significance of longships in the Viking Age. The ultimate goal is an immersive and educational VR experience where a person can put on a headset and set sail. The program will incorporate informational blurbs, videos, and mini-games to teach players about the physical and cultural aspects of longships.

Four Carleton students—Lily Haas ’24, Maddie Smith ’24, Jack Ochoa-Andersen ’24, and Kritika Pandit ’26—spent the summer as student research partners with Mason, learning the technical skills necessary to begin developing and troubleshooting the virtual reality features. The students learned to use VR and 3D modeling software, brainstormed new features and improvements, and researched Viking daily life, rituals, and culture.

Two students test a virtual reality rowing game with a broom handle
Maddie Smith ’24 and Lily Haas ’24 test out the rowing mini-game with a broom handle and VR headset

“The summer project is a fantastic learning experience for the students,” said Smith, an art history major and 3D artist for the project. “We are practicing the skills we need to achieve the ultimate goals of the project by working on smaller, related VR experiences and building up a proficiency with relevant software.”

This learning process brought challenging and rewarding moments.

“The first project I assembled and ran that was not explicitly part of a tutorial was really exciting,” said Haas, a computer science major and software developer for the project.

The summer work included a game that educates users about the contents of a Viking’s sea chest and a game that teaches users how to row a longship.

“The user will learn how oars are placed through oar holes in the ship and then follow instructions that will teach them how to row and give feedback on their timing,” explained Haas. 

In addition to immersing themselves in the digital details of Viking ships, the students took a four day trip to Moorhead, Minnesota to see the Hjemkomst, a replica of the ninth century burial ship from Gokstad, Norway.

The Hjemkomst, which means “homecoming” in Norwegian, was first tested on Lake Superior and then sailed to Norway in 1982. The students had the chance to interview several original crew members, including Mark Hilde, the first mate, and Paul Hesse, the navigator. 

Students sit in front of computers working on the project
Lily Haas ’24, Kritika Pandit ’26, and Maddie Smith ’24 at work on the project in the Weitz Center IdeaLab

“We took hours of footage during which they talked about their experiences on the Hjemkomst and showed us around the ship itself,” said Smith. 

The students were also able to board the ship—a rare experience, as it can be dangerous even with crew supervision. Pandit, the programmer for the project, described it as a thrilling and inspiring experience. 

“Hearing the crew members’ real-life experiences enriched the trip and added significant value to our project,” Pandit said. She later integrated interview clips from the trip into the rowing mini-game that the students developed.

As well as developing a virtual reality simulation of a longship, the project aims to test out curriculum outlined in the Digital Humanities Advancement Grant and chart a pathway for other schools to develop similar educational tools. 

“The project was designed to test how we can do virtual reality development on campus with undergraduate researchers,” said Mason. 

Kritika and Maddie standing aboard the Hjemkomst, filming an interview with Paul Hesse, the ship's navigator.
Pandit and Smith film an interview with Paul Hesse (foreground) and Mark Hilde on the Hjemkomst

Mason expects that virtual reality will evolve to play a larger role in educational settings and historical research. At the present, it is best suited for what Mason calls “low-hanging fruit”—gaming and technical training for high-stakes tasks such as surgery, rather than aspects of culture or daily life. But just as history evolved to focus less on big events and more on marginalized voices, Mason sees virtual reality eventually encompassing more voices and “diversifying the number of options available for people to experience.” 

The Virtual Viking Longship Project sparked partnerships with several museums, from the United States to Europe. The museums—including the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead and the Viking Museum Haithabu in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany—are interested in using virtual reality to enhance exhibits and give visitors an experience of artifacts that can’t be engaged with physically. 

The project has been valuable not only for colleges and museums, but also for the students who are helping build it. In addition to gaining new technical and professional skills, the students enjoyed the collaborative and team-oriented nature of the project. 

“What’s great about our team is that the students and professors collaborate on all aspects of the project, freely giving feedback and making suggestions to improve the end product,” said Smith.

Students pose for a photo in front of a Fargo sign on their trip to Moorhead
Smith, Henry Loomis (Grinnell), Pandit, Ochoa-Andersen, and Haas in Fargo, North Dakota on their trip to Moorhead

“I learned the importance of incorporating humor and fun into work, making the process enjoyable and less tiring. I distinctly remember laughing out loud with my coworkers during a humorous stack overflow thread argument over code. These connections and experiences have profoundly impacted my work and learning,” said Pandit. “Personally, I have become deeply attached to this project, and I am genuinely excited about its ongoing development and the potential impact it may have in the future.” 

The students will continue work on the project throughout the academic year, now equipped with the skills and experiences to build an immersive world of Viking culture. Haas has found excitement in each milestone of the project and is gladly anticipating the final product.

“The part of the project I am most looking forward to is when we have one single app that launches the experiences we have been working on,” she said. “That is the point at which we could generally hand a headset with the app loaded on it to someone and they could figure out how to use it with minimal assistance. To me, this would be the point that I feel we really have something to show for our work.”