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Fay Jones steps into virtual reality with new kiosk at Shiloh Museum

by April Wallace | May 14, 2023 at 1:15 a.m.
University of Arkansas professors Greg Herman and David Fredrick, creators of a new touch screen kiosk at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History that focuses on the architecture of E. Fay Jones, will discuss his work in a lecture at 6:30 p.m. May 17 at the Springdale museum. Theyre pictured at the Fay Jones house in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/April Wallace)

The lower part of the house is cavelike, small and dark. Your body senses it and feels a little compressed. As you rise to the top level, the house transforms. It becomes more like a treehouse, and innately you feel that opening of space.

While everything your eyes are taking in in front of you could point to the fact that you were inside a creation of E. Fay Jones architecture, in reality you're actually in the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History on a touch screen kiosk. Its interactive gaming technology transports you to your choice of four of Jones' structures, including Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs; Stoneflower, a chapel-like house in Heber Springs; or one of a couple other houses that the iconic architect designed in Arkansas.

The creators, University of Arkansas professors Greg Herman and David Fredrick, will discuss Fay Jones' work in a lecture at Springdale's Shiloh Museum at 6:30 p.m. May 17. They hope the experience of "Housing the Human and the Sacred" gives users not just a sense of the full breadth of Fay Jones' career, but of architecture in general and its major themes -- the effect of it on social relationships in the family, the occupant's relationship to the rhythms of nature and the sense of your body in relation to design and space.

"One of the themes of architecture is the relationship of space to the body, how you experience space," says Herman, a professor in the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Herman has been focused on Fay Jones' work since 2010, when he first documented Fay Jones' own house, and since then has completed a number of projects documenting outstanding examples of modernism in Northwest Arkansas.

David Charles Fredrick's background was in Greek and Latin, but his primary research was into wall painting in Pompeii. He began to reconstruct environments in real time starting in 2007 or '08. A couple of years later, he was among the first on the University of Arkansas campus to begin teaching video game design. Soon after, he started to use a similar game engine model for other projects, such as Crystal Bridges' Gallery Five, in which students could learn art history by arranging their own art shows in a virtual gallery.

Herman and Fredrick have collaborated on the Fay Jones kiosk project for six years, which was inspired by an experience they had teaching a course that documented a Fay Jones house.

They first received an $86,000 grant from the Chancellor's Innovation and Collaboration Fund, followed by $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities Projects for the Public grant, its highest level of grant, in 2019. Then they began their work, preparing digital renditions of the works of Fay Jones, in 2020.

The kiosk's first iteration had a rough and ready digital model of only the Fay Jones house, the one he lived in himself, and they brought the enormous touch screen to the downtown Fayetteville square on different occasions. Securing the NEH funds allowed them to expand their charge.

"We made two smaller, more mobile kiosks and a web-based exploratory application that's game like," Fredrick says. "The kiosks are cool, you can touch them and I like the quality, but people spend ... five minutes or less. The web seemed a way to complement it with a more full story line and engage them longer."

Herman and Fredrick harnessed a lot of student and staff power via the Tesseract Center for Immersive Environments and Game Design throughout the long project. At first they used five or six folks from the center, then 10-15 and in 2017 they had as many as 20 working on it. But roughly 10 people made up a functional team, some of them working full time on the project and others part time.

Naturally, having more hands on deck helped immensely, but it didn't eliminate all the challenges.

Collecting enough images on each site required taking a lot of photos of a difficult subject to capture -- Ozark stone. To capture and record it in its many polygons and faces, the team had to "shoot little by little and tie them together in photogrammetry." To create a 3D model in a game engine would require hand drawing, so the photography element was tedious, but still faster than the traditional route.

"It was super beneficial for (students) to work on this project," Frederick says. "There's a lot of lessons there for game designers, about how light works (within it) ... a surprising amount of complexity and choices in a small footprint."

Adding to the challenge was the pandemic, which made working together in the same space an impossibility, a difficult thing when working with a young group of developers ages 19 to 26.

"That impacted our timeline significantly, and we had budgetary impacts in terms of support," Fredrick says. "It's been a winding road to get to where we are now."

Other things were more straightforward, like choosing which of Jones' structures to feature. Herman says they chose a variety to give an overview of the length and breadth of Fay Jones' architecture practice. His own house was finished in 1956, and the latest structure featured is Thorncrown Chapel, which was finished in 1980.

That gives "some broad understanding of his work in the selection," Herman says. "We do have a chapel and three houses, and really those formed the bulk of his practice; he was a house architect. Once Thorncrown was designed and built, he was in demand for more chapels, and (led to) half a dozen of them around the country."

The kiosk opened to the public at Shiloh Museum on April 11, just in time for the Springdale Art Walk, and so far, it's definitely been a draw. It is, after all, a way to view privately owned houses that wouldn't otherwise be regularly on view the way that Thorncrown Chapel is. Frederick says it brings a story of design that is important to the Ozarks, and the museum has seen a response to that.

"We've had a lot of ... people really interested in Fay Jones," says Angie Albright, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. "Just the announcement has brought a lot of traffic for it."

During the Art Walk, Albright noticed that people dropped by specifically to experience the kiosk.

"It tells me that Jones still has a real following around here," Albright says. "He's so associated with Arkansas and the Ozarks."

The accompanying website app feature is not ready to be released to the public quite yet, as it's in the polishing stages, but will be ready by the end of June.

  photo  Angie Albright, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History, demonstrates the new E. Fay Jones kiosk, which she says has already been popular with visitors to the Springdale museum. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/April Wallace)

Print Headline: Kiosk uses gaming tech to get inside Fay Jones’ iconic designs


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