Sep 27, 2023 @ 09:09 AM
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Hi everybody! I am the avatar of Count Ettore Arrigoni degli Oddi and you can meet me on an e-REAL interactive wall at the Civic Museum of Zoology in Rome. How I ended up as a digital human in a museum is a long story, but keep reading if you want to find out more!

Why did Count Arrigoni become a digital human?

Count Ettore Arrigoni degli Oddi was an historical figure that lived in Italy between 1867 and 1942. He – or should I say I? The identity crises an real-person avatar has to go through when they are you and you are them… I’m going to say “I”, because I am him, just digital! Anyway, I was one of the founders of italian ornithology and owned a huge stuffed birds collection that is hosted today in… guess where? The Civic Museum of Zoology in Rome!

Yet, usually museums talk about people like me, they don’t actually bring us back to life, so how did I come to be? The Civic Museum of Zoology has a great responsibility in educating the youth that visits them very day, but lets be honest, who as a teenager was ever interested in reading through the endless panels of a museum? And you won’t believe this, but someone suggested that a room full of stuffed dead animals and tiny hooks and scalpels to skin them could be considered a little bit creepy… No no, I’m not the one that said that, I love my birds! But the museum decided that in order to keep in touch with the very youth they were trying to educate, it was time for an update, and so with funds from an EU digitalization, education and culture project, and the help of e-REAL they redesigned several of their exposition rooms, including mine.

But why did I become an avatar? The simple truth is, you might not want to read through a panel about me, but you are going to love talking to me! While you stroll through the room with all my old cabinets and utensils, I can tell you about them and how they are used and about how even though they seem creepy and part of an outdated practice, these stuffed animals have a key role in ornithology. Do you know how a certain bird species looked 100 years ago? No? Well niether would today’s ornithologists if someone hadn’t made a stuffed specimen, and this kind of knowledge is essential in order to understand how bird species are impacted by the modern world – yes, yes, you can thank me later. Look, that’s me and my flesh version, uncanny resemblance, don’t you think?

The power of an interactive wall in a museum

Now you might ask, if it’s just about hearing me blab about my dear old birds, wouldn’t a video with a good actor have been enough? Well, would you stop and whatch a dressed up actor or do you want the original?! But jokes aside, my interactive wall is so much more than just me talking, it’s a full experience that each visitor can custom to their likings, deciding in real-time what they want me to talk about and creating their own path through the topics I offer.

And a very important part of digitalization is that it’s not just about the visitors! The interactive system allows the museum to keep track of what are the public’s favourite topics, finding out what they want to know about more and having a chance of incorporating that knowledge into the future experiences. Well, if that isn’t a modern museum at it’s peak, I don’t know what is!

And it’s also not just about the avatar that lives in it, the rest of the scenario is great too! You can enjoy a detailed and realistic replica of my office, completly immersing in the feeling of what might have been being an ornithologist at the time. How detailed you ask? Well, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but in the last of their tests the e-REAL team discovered a small light switch hidden in a dark corner. No one would have seen it, but we can’t have that in a 19th century scenery, can we? It totally ruins the vibe – pardon me, but I learned some expressions while I was in the 21th century. When I realized that I would be spending 24/7 in my scenery I insisted on wanting my original working space and not a half-assed, vaguely inspired 19th century office. And so they dived in the archives for original pictures – and trust me, they had to dive deep because they are in the basement of the museum – found a few black and white, dusty photos and, well, they delivered! It feels just like home! You can take a look at how my studio and I were created in this short video.

3D modeling historical details

But replicating a space from pictures, that’s everyday stuff for the e-REAL team, what actually makes me so special, is that I’m a historic figure and it wasn’t just about creating an avatar, but about bringing back to life an exact copy of someone that had existed. In English you might not notice it, but when I talk to you in Italian I have an accent of the Paduan province where I was born, and trust me, to find a voice actor with that accent must not have been easy because italian regional accents vary so much even just inside the same region. But if the avatar didn’t talk like me, it wouldn’t have been me!

It doesn’t stop there… Have you ever wondered how an avatar is dressed? In videogames you usually have those nice virtual closets where you can scroll until you find the perfect fit, in 3D modeling… well yes, and no. There are existing 3D models that can be used as a base for avatar clothes, but you know what the most popular eras are, where a lot of models exist? The Middle Ages, the Stone Age – yes, that was a surprise – and 19th century italian ornithologist? Not so much. So my clothes and accessories had to be created almost from scratch based on a few historical pictures, that’s what I call digital tailoring! Could you imagine yourself being a tailor to a digital human? Now that’s an unconventional job to tell your friends about! If you want to find out more about how 3D modeling for a historic digital humans works, here’s an interview with the project manager and computer development expert that worked on the project.

Now, as much as I love talking about me and my stuffed birds, I think it’s time to wrap it up. The DigiBlog will wait for you next week with a new digital human, don’t miss it! As for me, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you and thank you for sticking to the end, see you in Rome if you ever come to visit me!