(Image by Paulo Duarte from Pixabay)

A new approach to anthropology that aims to create a connected virtual world could help one of South America's Amazonian communities preserve its heritage.

What's more, the creators of these virtual worlds are connecting the technology they used to create them (a combination of graph databases, generative AI, and virtual reality (VR) tools) to game engines to create truly immersive worlds that outsiders can't imagine. I believe that it is possible to create a world of types. You can “visit” and learn.

'HeritageRoots', one of the brains behind this idea, says:

When we stop hunting, our traditions about plants and animals and how to live with them disappear. Expressing lost knowledge in the form of technology may give young people here new and productive ways to collaborate with elders in the territory.

The speaker was Todd Swanson, an associate professor in the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Arizona State University.

Dmitry Babichenko, a colleague at HeritageRoots and a key leader in technology selection and implementation, added:

Much of the culture that is being lost is contained in the stories people tell, including the connections between biodiversity and culture, as well as cultures that explain social structures, people's relationships with the environment, and specific linguistic concepts. Masu.

A complex but dwindling world of forest life

Swanson and Babichenko's research background helps study and preserve the culture of the inhabitants of Ecuador's “Oriente,” part of the vast Amazon biome.

Due to its unique location at the confluence of the Andes and the Amazon River, Oriente's soil is enriched by the black volcanic ash that flows down the river.

This means that although it is only 2% of the Amazon, Ecuador's 135,000 square kilometers of rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth.

It is also home to the Kichwa people of the Amazon, a group of indigenous peoples who share a common language: Kichwa.

Despite there being 100,000 speakers of the language, the pressures of modernization and young people finding jobs that support traditional sources of income, such as hunting and fishing, are increasing the number of people who previously supported communities. It means that culture and folklore may soon disappear.

However, the key to the Kichwa worldview is the idea of ​​”story.”

This does not mean the Western idea of ​​a very limited story with a clear beginning and end.

Swanson says:

The forest is experienced from different directions and through different parts of the story. Usually these are not told from start to finish in his one setting, but in different parts in different scenes.

As such, the Kichwa people live in a rich tapestry of stories that convey both practical and folk wisdom, stories that reflect their unique relationship with the forest and the animals that live with it. It embodies the relationship.

Kichwa stories include many real-world objects, including tools and utensils used by humans, as well as very specific parts of roads and the natural environment.

Swanson and Babichenko's insight is that the Kichwa experience and heritage can be modeled in a very rich way if we can properly preserve information that reflects the rich interrelationships between the elements of a story and the places in which it is told. That's what it was.

Graphs – a natural way to express interconnectedness

Babichenko – a clinical associate professor in the Department of Informatics and Network Systems in the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh – had previously been exposed to the idea of ​​graph-based knowledge graphs. This means that entities or elements within them are connected by relationships with each other.

he says:

The problem with using relational databases is that entities are represented as tables. Tables also assume that every entity has the same attributes that describe it. But in our case every entity may have a very different set of attributes describing it.

Different animals can produce different utterances. Different media and plants can have different characteristics, and there is also a virtually infinite number of connections that are impossible to replicate in a document or relational database.

Graph databases are a natural choice when trying to represent semantic relationships between objects. Therefore, we decided to work with student volunteers to incorporate Kichwa mythology into the graph.

Swanson and his collaborators are encouraged to input a wide range of stories from native speakers and explain as much as they can about what is happening in each story and the significance of the characters in that story.

They use Neo4j as their primary database for this and a Python application that pulls in all this information.

Babichenko then used Flask as a very lightweight web server to create a system with a web-based interface with a front end written in the HTML5 React framework. D3.js is also used to power data visualization libraries, but it has a wide range of functionality. Using ChatGPT 3.5 is also central to content modeling.

The result is a system that dynamically links new story elements to every other instance, creating a growing web of Kichwa legends and wisdom.

Babichenko says:

We created a predefined ontology of relationships. There, the story itself becomes a node and everything is connected to that node. So, when a story is uploaded to the system, the model searches for and connects to all mentioned animals, plants, people, objects, and geographic locations.

Going immersive

The user interface also allows you to upload visual assets. As various stories related to plants, birds, animals and insects are published online, you can also link short videos of these elements.

In addition, increasingly 3D scans of narrative elements (of human origin) such as bowls, masks, baskets, and hunting equipment, as well as natural objects such as plants and toucans, are also being embedded into the platform.

They say this is starting to give the system real power. In order for his sequences to be evenly animated, as if there were dialogues mentioned in the story, or actions associated with animals or plants or human archetypes. You can create more in your life.

he says:

If you add a 3D model to represent the toucan and the toucan says something in the story, you can actually animate the bird algorithmically to say something like that, fly, or sit on a branch. Masu.

But there are even more ambitious steps beyond that. HeritageRoots will soon be connected to video game engines such as Unity and Unreal.

The vision here, Babichenko said, is to allow visitors to the Kichwa world to literally step into it.

he says:

Another reason I chose Neo4j is because it has a very nice ability to output query results as JSON (JavaScript Object Notation).

This means you can build RESTful API endpoints for these 3D game engines and start procedural generation to create the simulated environments in which your stories occur.

The value here, Swanson says, is that text-based interfaces are fine, but they can engage young Kichwa learners who have grown up as part of the diaspora and now live in the world of Baldur 3, and the heritage they have inherited. Point out the need to learn about how to attract. You should investigate as much as possible, including the possibility of a VR walkthrough.

For Babichenko:

Soon you will be able to “walk” through the world of Kichwa, and interacting with certain plants or picking up bowls will trigger the next story.

The more stories and media that HeritageRoots is able to bring into the system, the more immersive the system will become.

But Babichenko thinks there may be a lesson here for museums. That way, you don't have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building detailed geographically and historically accurate environments, and instead leverage technology to create accurate representations that students and visitors can immerse themselves in instead. I wonder if it is possible to build one.

capture beautiful moments

For now, these are future ambitions.

Today, HeritageRoots consists of a small but growing system of 12,000 nodes and 30,000 edges.

Next steps include launching a public taster version on one of the University of Pittsburgh's servers and asking student volunteers over the summer to build a system using publicly available out-of-copyright narratives. Masu.

He concludes:

We are also in talks with a number of museums. Once you launch, I think you'll start growing exponentially right away.

Swanson added:

I want to capture the beauty and melancholy of the Kichwa way of life, living socially and with nature. It's deeply moving, but it's also threatened by rapid change.

I also hope that our grandchildren will be able to go to these virtual worlds and hear the voices of people from the past speaking their native languages ​​as they were spoken in the days when people lived with these plants and animals on a daily basis. I am.

If we can do that, we hope that the world will come alive and move people, and inspire people to learn more about the languages, cultures, and home environments that are being lost, and to spend time in, visit, engage with, and support their hometowns.

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