(University of Queensland, Australia)
Recent research has suggested that a lack of engagement in a virtual environment is due to technology or application issues, but virtual environments that aim to preserve explain and inform on culturally significant places need to do more than replicate objects, they need to replicate the processes that made those artefacts culturally significant. There has been a great deal of discussion on the advancement of virtual heritage technology. But do we have examples of meaningful interaction in virtual heritage environments? According to the few impartial user studies that we have, so far this is area is still too undeveloped (Mosaker, 2001). Many writers have stated that virtual environments lack meaningful content, and virtual heritage environments are a case in point. There is a great deal of research still to be done on what social and cultural cues are most significant to people and which cues most aid education and engagement. These factors vary according to the audience, their background, beliefs, and intentions. Due to the gestalt-nature of cultural understanding, it may not be enough to experiment with restricted content, research on cultural presence may require significant and contextually appropriate content. We still do not have agreed definitions of cultural presence or data to help determine which elements most aid a sense of cultural presence, (a perceived encounter with digitally simulated cultural agency). The evaluation of cultural presence, cultural significance, cultural understanding, and cultural learning is therefore problematic. We do not have a clear mutual understanding of what exactly is cultural information and how to provide for it or communicate it digitally. In order to understand what can be disseminated in terms of context, content and audience, I hope to explain four major issues in virtual heritage, and how they can be tackled.