UH Professors Envision Online Tool for Visual Analysis in the Humanities

New Tool Vwire Focus of NEH Digital Start-Up Grant for Professors Rex Koontz, Dan Price

University of Houston art history professor Rex Koontz remembers distinctly how one of his mentors researched artifacts and ancient artworks by going through tall stacks of hardcover books, identifying images and photos, then placing them on the floor of his office to compare them.

The Internet has certainly made this cumbersome research method a thing of the past, but web technologies also have fostered a reliance on word “tags” and verbal descriptions. Thanks to Koontz and UH Honors College professor Dan Price, researchers and students have a new online tool to assist in analyzing and discussing visual resources.

Koontz and Price developed the Visual Web Interface for Researchers (Vwire), with support from UH’s Honors College and Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2). This online tool allows users to easily compare and categorize visual information. Images can be uploaded into a visual database, grouped together for side-by-side analysis, saved as collections and shared among students and researchers. Vwire also allows students and researchers to be part of an online Vwire community that facilitates academic dialogue about shared images. Vwire is a prototype and will not be available for public use until 2012.

“Vwire is a tool that allows researchers to save visual knowledge,” said Koontz, director of UH’s School of Art. “It also can be used to begin a conversation about visual analysis. Because it’s online, it can promote discussions among researchers across disciplines from all areas of the world.”

Koontz and Price recently received a $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Start-Up Grant for the project “Vwire: Digital Content Management through Spatial Arrangement - a Tool for Visual Argumentation in the Humanities.” Through this project, 10 to 12 art historians and archaeologists will use Vwire to analyze a collection of Teotihuacan stone masks. They will study and categorize these masks for 18 months. At the conclusion of their analysis, they will be interviewed about the decisions they made as they categorized these masks. Each participant also will have the opportunity to see how the rest of the group organized these masks and engage in cross-disciplinary discussion.

Assisting with this project will be Jerome Crowder, assistant professor at the University of Texas, Medical Branch at Galveston and Ioannis Konstantinidis, research development officer with TLC2.

Student Lauren Lovings recently provided support to the project through UH’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. She prepared textual information about the Teotihuacan masks for the project’s participating scholars. Lovings also used Vwire to develop an exhibition focused on eight Teotihuacan masks. She will showcase this work this fall at UH’s School of Art.

“This tool can be helpful to students who are involved in visual fields of study,” said Lovings, a senior art history and French major. “When I'm writing an essay for an art history course, I'll have the images that I'm using and the arguments that I want to make spread out on a table to visualize the order in which I want to make my arguments. Vwire allows students to do this in a digital space.  One of the greatest features about Vwire is that students can organize the images in a specific way, save that organization and try out different organizations.  Vwire allows researchers to make as many visual arguments as they want to have.”

Lovings wasn’t the first student to use Vwire. It recently was tested in one of Koontz’ art history courses that focused on Mesoamerican culture. He used the tool to illustrate how Mesoamerican tripods were mislabeled in previously published research. Vwire’s capability to compare similar objects visually allowed students to see how these tripods were created by different cultures, while previous research indicated they were only from one source.

“Visual analysis is very important for students in critical social sciences. Making sense of our visual world is absolutely crucial,” Koontz said. “A tool such as Vwire can help students and seasoned researchers develop a fine eye. Most importantly, it can be used across disciplines including design, sociology, anthropology, art history and others. We are looking forward to the upcoming NEH project and are particularly excited about Vwire’s possibilities as an educational tool.”