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Through the Lens of Austen

English professor Janine Barchas has collaborated with the Vislab to put her research on display for students to time travel through the eyes of 19th century author Jane Austen.

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The supercomputing power of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) Visualization Laboratory — or Vislab, for short — harnesses some of the most powerful computing resources and highest resolution displays in the world.

In addition to crunching numbers, these technologies bring data to life through animations, interactive visualizations and virtual reality. Researchers use these resources to make discoveries in nearly every field of science, from deadly viruses to the origins of the universe.

Janine Barchas in the Vislab with Student using google cardboard.

Janine Barchas in the Vislab with a student using Google Cardboard to look at the Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibit. The Vislab used Unity3D, a cross-platform game creation engine, to enhance the Sketchup model of the What Jane Saw website. Now students can view the virtual reality museum using the Oculus Rift or the more affordable version, Google Cardboard. Photo by Marsha Miller.

But scientists aren’t the only ones interested in the Vislab’s capabilities. Social science scholars are also inspired by what technology can bring to their research.

“I was visualizing Jane Austen’s world by writing a book about it. But it turns out there were other visualization tools out there that are blowing my students’ minds,” says Janine Barchas, professor of English.

Barchas has collaborated with the Vislab to put her research on display for students to time travel through the eyes of the 19th-century author.

“Some things in Jane Austen are timeless, but Jane Austen was very much a product of her time,” she says. In her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, Barchas argues that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians, celebrities and historical figures. Barchas is interested in how Austen learned about and perceived these popular characters.

“Some still think of Jane Austen as a modest country mouse, wedded to the quiet sameness of village life,” writes The Guardian newspaper in a review of Barchas’s work. “In fact, she loved going to London and went there often. When she was in town she went to the theatre, sampled the shops and attended fashionable gatherings.”

Photo illustration of Barchas and the student team who created What Jane Saw

Barchas and the student researchers she worked with to build the 2D What Jane Saw website. The website is a cross-disciplinary collaboration between Barchas, LAITS, art history, architecture, and computer science. They are exploring the digital-recreation of the Shakespeare Gallery. Photo illustration by Suloni Robertson.

What Jane Saw is a virtual recreation of two of these fashionable gatherings. The website allows anyone to visit — as Austen did — two art exhibits at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London: the Sir Joshua Reynolds on May 24, 1813, and Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in August of 1796.

[Read the New York Times article about the recent addition of the Shakespeare Gallery to What Jane Saw.]

Visits to these popular exhibits are great examples of how someone like Austen, who did not belong to the social elite, learned about the celebrities of her time. Think of them as the 19th-century version of watching the Golden Globes.

When Rob Turknett from the Vislab heard about the What Jane Saw website, he offered their virtual reality technology to add to the time-travel experience as part of the Vislab’s humanities outreach program.

“One of the things that virtual reality allows you to do is go places that normally we cannot go and explore them from a first-person [perspective],” says Luis Francisco-Revilla, research associate and manager of the Visualization Interfaces at TACC. “You actually feel like you are there.”

To create that real feeling they asked Barchas questions, many of which her existing research couldn’t answer.

“They brought out a sun calendar and wanted to know the building’s alignment to the streets so the sun calculator could be placed into the 3D engine,” says Barchas. “Was it morning sun, afternoon sun? Was it 2 p.m., 4 p.m.? What was the weather like? What was she wearing? These are all things we were able to research and then add.”

Now, using the Oculus Rift at the Vislab, anyone can view the paintings in the same light and from the height of Jane Austen’s eyes — literally seeing what Jane saw.

fashion plates that Jane Austen saw on view at the HRC

Fashion plates from “The Ladies’ Monthly Museum” (London, 1804). Austen’s characters — and perhaps the author herself — could study contemporary fashion through such magazines as the one shown here. One part of the Harry Ransom Center Jane Austen archive. Photo courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

Students in Barchas’s digital humanities class, Jane Austen on Page and Screen, visited the Vislab during the fall semester. The class was encouraged to embrace all the technology at their fingertips to delve deeper into literature.

But flashy technology isn’t her only teaching tool. Barchas also requires her students to purchase physical copies of Austen’s books and to visit the Austen materials at the Harry Ransom Center to see the publications and artwork Austen would have been familiar with. Barchas says it is the marriage of new and traditional research that gives the most complete view of a writer working centuries ago.

“I think we all step over an imagined threshold when we open a book … to empathize with another world, another time, another place,” says Barchas. “This time travel tool that is 3D technology allows us to do just that.”

Visit the Vislab in the Peter O’Donnell Building for Applied Computational Engineering and Sciences (POB), Room 2.404a. Individuals are welcome Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m., or you can schedule a tour.