A New Experience of the Past: Virtual and Augmented Reality

Our endeavor reshapes interpretation, understanding, and knowledge by generating virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality worlds (AR, interactive digital projections placed over the real world). We create a methodological interpretive digital experience that places participants within a narrative of Plains Indian life, Indian-Spanish interchange, and the Spanish-Indian (Hispano) settlement of southern Colorado. Akin to a three-act drama, our project grants the public and researchers a chance to observe, evaluate, and reflect upon the cultural transformation of southern Colorado from the 16th-19th centuries.

Facilitating Reflection via Tech, Layered Information, & Multiple Perspectives

Our innovation is to use technology as a tool to enhance/expand human reflection. One, we create a research process and information framework that supports the multi-modal layering of musical, environmental, linguistic, social, and cultural artifacts to produce novel, dynamic interpretations of the past. Together, we build an integrated practice that binds our individual research efforts and courses into a whole and generates a new cadre of Augmented Reflection Scholars (undergraduate and graduate students). Two, we enhance understanding by presenting Native American, colonial Spanish, and culturally-hybridized virtual worlds that reflect new ways of perceiving our predecessors. In the most radical sense, even though we will re-create specific historical events in VR/AR, it is likely these “worldviews” will not appear (auditorily, visually, temporally) to be the same event. Put simply, we do not all perceive the same things. Three, we foster human reflection by memorializing — writing a new, augmented history — of southern Colorado by drawing the public into an experiential virtual learning environment. By commissioning new creative works, hosting in-person public events, presenting online events, and teaching a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), we will promote a greater public understanding of the creative forces that brought the American and the European worlds together.

Reflection through Three Moments, Three Places

Using the Unity software platform and a newly-secured $16,500 grant from Unity corporation, we can deliver a cost-effective and widely-accessible virtual world employing users’ existing devices (phones, tablets, computers) as well as new VR/AR headsets. First, working in concert with Ute/Apache elders and local cultural officials, we will re-create communal experiences that are virtually projected on to the actual environment. During a “first act”, participants perceive a Plains Indian (Ute, Apache, or another tribe) settlement visually-projected on to the landscape. Participants will walk through the settlement, experience daily affairs, and summon detailed stories. Next, a 10-minute narrative will play that depicts a representative moment in history (for example, a religious ceremony or gathering) where digital actors (avatars) will encircle the present-day participants who are wearing their headsets. Participants will be prompted with “reflection questions” that ask them to consider their own and others’ intellectual and emotional responses to the experience. A “second act” will depict the complexities of an encounter between the Spanish and Plains Indians as they trade goods. A “third act” will present the cultural-biological mixing of Spanish and Plain Indian lives during the 18th-19th centuries. Through this three-part digital narrative participants will garner an enhanced understanding of this complicated human history.

Video: Recreating Plains Indian Life

Research and Scholars

Value of the Research: Gathering Excellence and Creating Bridges

The project facilitates our team’s efforts to deepen our expertise in the heritage and culture of the Southwest, while fostering the development of junior faculty, accomplished instructors, and students. Further, and as discussed below, we will acquire advanced technology capabilities that characterize the trailblazing realm of the digital humanities. The project, directed on a day-to-day basis by Assoc. Prof. Roger Martinez (History), is led by five co-principal investigators including Assoc. Prof. Minette Church (Anthropology), Assoc. Prof. Fernando Feliu-Moggi (Languages and Cultures), Instructor Michael Larkin (GES), and Prof. Suzanne MacAulay (VAPA). As detailed in the following table, our expertise and interests are well-tuned to this endeavor. To facilitate the cross-fertilization of ideas and extend our reach within LAS, our team includes three part-time collaborators: Asst. Prof. Samantha Christensen (History), Assoc. Prof. Janice Gould (WEST), and Asst. Prof. Jane Rigler (VAPA). We also anticipate, based on discussions with the Departments of Biology & Mathematics, to integrate other faculty to assist in our analysis of medicinal plants and the impact of diseases on native populations.

Co-Principal Investigators (alphabetical)
Participant Principal Areas of Expertise Principal Areas of Interest for this Project
Minette Church (Anthropology) *Archeology *Colorado(CO)/New Mexico (NM) borderlands *Museum and exhibition curation *CO/NM borderlands (pre-and post-Spanish era) *Historical medical botany *Native American history
Fernando Feliu-Moggi

(Lang. & Cultures)

*Colonial Spanish America *CO/NM borderlands *Experiential learning *Film studies *Spanish and Native American communities *Religious brotherhoods in New Mexico/Colorado *Oral histories
Michael Larkin (GES) *Geospatial science *Human-land interactions and spatial order *CO-focused
Suzanne MacAulay


*Folklore *Spanish colonial textiles *Art history *Material culture *Ethno-aesthetics & material culture of southern CO & NM *Material culture & sense of place *Traditional and contemporary colcha embroideries *Spanish colonial and indigenous peoples’ relationships
Roger Martinez (History) *Virtual reality and digital storytelling *Colonial Spanish history and religion *Archival research and paleography *Colonial Spanish NM/CO and indigenous cultural interchange (language, trade, religion, and customs) *Material culture and artifacts *Archival collections in local, provincial, state, and church institutions
Collaborators (alphabetical)
Samantha Christiansen (History) *History *Gender studies *Spatial history *Identity (collective and individual) formation *Storytelling and oral history *Gender and representation *Spatial‑social interaction *Power and population manipulation
Janice Gould (WEST) *Poetry *Music *Photography *Poetry, music, and folk dance of southern CO/NM *Community engagement
Jane Rigler


*Music and composition

*Deep Listening

*Indigenous peoples about the concept of multi-modal listening *Navajo music artists *Listening to the environment *Digital/technology applications of music

Interdisciplinary Focus

Bridging Disciplines and Theoretical Frameworks

We will garner new insights across the scholarly spectrum because this interdisciplinary Annales School investigation aims to understand the “whole” by employing our specialties. While the overarching Annalist approach is historical, it is flexible and interdisciplinary; as H. R. Trevor-Roper states, “[the Annales School] crosses all frontiers and uses all techniques…to recreate the totality of a society, past or present, to understand its delicate mechanism and yet to see it, not as a machine, but as a living organism.” Thus, we draw in many intellectual approaches. For example, Prof. Feliu-Moggi’s cultural theory enhances our work because it subscribes to the idea that cultural texts (which range from written and oral histories, to artistic representations and artifacts) allow us to read into the philosophies that shape and transform societies. Cultural texts facilitate knowledge about social dynamics over time and also at specific moments. Prof. Gould, our poet with Native American roots, will provoke us to travel and witness—looking, viewing, hoping to see in the way Dorothea Lange phrased it when she asked, “But do you really see?” Prof. Larkin promotes our understanding as “cultural geographers”. His approach is to question the nature of human and environmental interactions. He aims to understand “cultural expressions of place”. Prof. MacAulay, as an ethnographer, brings the investigative mode of a participant observer. She will examine concepts such as “sense(s) of place” and how the human senses impact local material culture. This is most prominent in ethno-aesthetics (the study of “native” criteria or standards used by the artists to critique their art). Prof. Church works with archaeology and every-day material culture, embodied experience of landscape, and cultural memory, as well as museum studies in borderlands. Prof. Rigler carries forward the multi‐disciplinary approach of Deep Listening, a practice that stimulates inclusive ways to perceive multisensorial listening experiences. For example, we will integrate sound artist and composer Raven Chacon, a member of the Navajo Nation, in our efforts to experience Deep Listening. Prof. Martinez employs his archival expertise and the digital humanities — blending technology, history, and religion — to understand the lives of religious minorities in Spain and New Mexico (Hispano crypto-Jews).

Collectively, our holistic approach will explore these thematic and VR/AR questions:

  • In which circumstances did Indian and Spanish worldviews harmonize, fracture, commingle, and compete? In what ways did Indian versus Spanish colonial discourses shape and structure everyday life?
  • How can VR/AR, geo-visualization, and cartography express divergent narratives and histories?
  • What is the phenomenological (or embodied) experience of landscape in southern Colorado? Do VR/AR enhance, mimic, or minimize this experience and why is this the case?
  • Why and how did colonization (and Indian counter-colonization) affect the cultural practices, production, and trade of the resident peoples? How can these divergent impacts be represented in VR/AR worlds?
  • What elements of Indian tradition (folk, music, religion) were incorporated into colonial culture? Can VR/AR be employed to distinguish customs that were exchanged vs. adapted to Spanish hegemonic culture?
  • How did Indian and Spanish populations perceive and explain rebellion (the Pueblo Revolt, etc.) and the reassertion of Spanish power (the Reconquista)? Do VR/AR offer novel ways of communicating these ideas?
  • Why and how did Hispanos use material culture, for example colcha embroideries, to differentiate their values and aesthetics from Indian ones? Can VR/AR generate opportunities to express these distinctions?
  • How did 19th and 20th-century perspectives frame our view of the past? For example, how were Indian and Hispano cultures photographed by outsiders? Will VR/AR be an outside or hybridized reflection of the past?

Community, The Public, and New Expertise

Engaging Indian and Hispano Communities in Southern Colorado

In turn, we will extend and reach out to the deeply-embedded Indian communities and descendants of Spanish settlers. We seek their guidance via an advisory council, personal interviews, and routine reports to these communities. We have begun our efforts by visiting with Mr. Ernest House, Jr., Executive Director of the CO Commission of Indian Affairs and member of the Ute Mountain Ute, regarding our efforts. Per Director House’s advice, we will connect with tribal elders, governments, and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) to solicit their early involvement in project decision-making. To further integrate communities into our creative and research activities, we will dedicate 21 % of the budget to supporting Indian/Hispanos student fellowships and community contributions to the project. We will target 10 multi-year fellowships for these students (see more below) and commission 25 Emerging Creators ($500 awards) and 5 Distinguished Creators ($1,000 awards) to generate original visuals and music that will be integrated into our AR world. Creators will retain full ownership of their physical works; however, the project will share rights to digital copies and depictions. We also anticipate outreach to Hispano cultural institutions and community groups in Trinidad, San Luis, and Antonito. For example, Prof. Church’s ongoing collaboration with Ms. Dawn DiPrince of the El Pueblo Museum, Trinidad History Museum, and Ft. Garland Museum, will facilitate integrated project relationships. We will involve local UCCS and Colorado Springs experts, such as Prof. Karen Larkin (Anthropology) and Ms. Anna Cordova, the lead archaeologist for the City of Colorado Springs and who is of Navajo/Apache-descent. To gather historical evidence on early Spanish-Indian relations, Prof. Martinez will activate his existing relationships with Director Dr. Andy Wulf of the NM History Museum, Director Josef Diaz of the Colonial Spanish Arts Museum (Santa Fe), and Deputy State Historian Mr. Robert Martinez of the NM State Record Center and Archives.

Experiential Dissemination: Public Programs, a Digital Platform, Univ. Courses and a MOOC

Our public dissemination efforts will be realized via public programs (onsite at the Heller Center and at three locations in southern Colorado), a digital platform (where users can download the AR experience), and in our university courses and a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) available to coursera.org’s 30 million learners. Per Director House’s recommendations and interest in distance education efforts for Indian communities, we anticipate collaborating directly with tribal and Hispano communities to produce a “New History of Southern Colorado” MOOC that integrates video lectures featuring tribal elder and Hispano oral histories as well as studies of material culture/archeology. The MOOC will deliver distance education to Indian and Hispano youth.

Creating Expanded Horizons and New Expertise for Faculty and Students

Crucial to our success is the Co-PIs’ commitment to learning new technologies so that they can develop and manage future tech-dependent interdisciplinary projects. For example, this may include new visual programming/coding expertise using UnityScript and character (avatar) generation using MakeHuman. Garnering these abilities will allow us to marshal technology for our future efforts so that we are not dependent on other fields to achieve our goals. Via a new cadre of Augmented Reflection Scholars, we will solicit and award ten (10) annual fellowships to undergraduate and graduate students who will participate in the project. We will promote a professionalizing camaraderie where students will enroll in our respective courses (such as our fall 2018 courses, GES: Maps as Historic Document, VAPA: Sound, Listening & Imagination, ANTH: Landscape Archaeology, SPAN: Spanish Heritage of the Southwest) as well as a spring 2019 core seminar course, HIST: Digital History and Augmented Reflections, directed by Prof. Martinez and that includes faculty guest lectures. To maximize our collaboration, we request a dedicated lab space for faculty and student work. As project faculty apprentice and acquire new technical skills we also will collaborate with an outsourcing partner. Prof. Martinez successfully used this academic-private sector development model with the 120-day creation of the VR world Virtual Plasencia in 2014, a $15,000 proof-of-concept project funded by the University of Texas. Similarly, he managed the 60-day generation of the digital narrative “La Mota” with a $5,000 budget; this same digital storytelling will be used for this project. To expedite and lower the cost of our efforts, our outsourcing partner (Zatun.com) will prepare commonly-purchased technical infrastructure.


Implementation and Budget

24 Months: High Risk, High Reward Project Implementation

This project will involve high risk, high reward implementation and will be completed in less than 24 months. We formally commence efforts in fall 2018. The semester will focus on four milestones: (1) outreach and integration of tribal/Hispano stakeholders; (2) architecting the parameters of the VR/AR world and the “three acts” (digital stories); (3) beginning enhanced faculty training; and (4) recruiting Augmented Reflections Scholars. Spring 2019 is dedicated to completing three major milestones: (1) development of a prototype VR/AR world built by faculty, students, and outsourcing partners; (2) commissioning new creative works by Emerging and Distinguished Creators; and (3) co-PIs and collaborators’ gathering and evaluating new research (in music, history, material culture, geography, culture, and archeology). By the end of summer 2019 the next major milestone will be reached: completion of the first VR/AR digital story on Plains Indian life. Fall 2019’s two primary milestones include: (1) field testing of a VR/AR experience at the Heller Center grounds and (2) preparation of the second (“Indian-Spanish interchange”) and third (“colonial Spanish hybridization”) acts. Spring 2020 will include our first public performances of the VR/AR experience at Heller and the UCCS West Lawn. During summer 2020, our distance education and global dissemination efforts will be achieved using the MOOC and a UCCS website. Our public programming will culminate in Fall 2020 with performances at three venues in southern Colorado. The performances will be co-developed and directed by Indian and Hispano communities.


We request $111,500 for a fully-funded proposal. Although the total project budget is $128,000, the Unity Corporation contributed $16,500 via in-kind software licenses. Key components include: $12,000 for faculty/student technical training; $20,000 for 8 independent faculty research budgets of $2,500; $20,000 for 40 student fellowships (each student receives $500 per semester over 4 semesters; 50% of fellowships targeted for Indians/Hispanos); $17,500 for 25 Emerging Creator and 5 Distinguished Creator awards for Indian/Hispano contributors; $6,000 for 25 Oculus Go VR headsets; $8,000 for two VR/AR development computers; $20,000 for outsourced development and technical infrastructure assistance; $2,000 for off-the-shelf VR/AR humanoid and environment models; no funding is required for MOOC production; and $6,000 for three offsite public performances (travel, insurance, location fees).