Transmission through Imitation

Transforming Intangible Cultural Heritage Archives through Virtual Reality and Sports Science

museum viewers practicing kung fu

This digital humanities project is located at the intersection of intangible cultural heritage (ICH – martial arts), human computer interaction (HCI – immersive pedagogy), and sports science (SS – psychology). Specifically, the project focuses on enactment models of learning using virtual reality for the transmission of embodied knowledge systems through imitation (from digital-master to human-novice).

This work is based on high-fidelity 3D motion data and photographic ultra-high-speed and green-screen video captured of expert kung fu practitioners of south Chinese traditions in Hong Kong (the ‘masters’). Currently comprised of 130 sets of ‘empty-hand’ and ‘weapon’ sequences known as taolu (套路), the archive represents 19 styles by 33 elite practitioners. Taolu are pre-arranged movement sequences used for learning, practicing and performing traditional martial arts and were initially created as mnemonic aids. Importantly, taolu are considered the primary ‘text’ for Chinese martial arts, whereby learning consists of memorizing the ‘text’ through imitation and repetition. For the first time in history, motion capture has allowed the precise recording of these taolu, forming the largest motion-data archive of its kind in the world and the basis for a series of international exhibitions and publications.

The archive is now poised to transform the way martial arts are documented and researched and the methods through which kung fu research is taught and learnt. This project aims to create an interactive application in a large-scale virtual environment that allows for 1:1 scale real-time interaction between human-novice and digital-master; undertake an experimental evaluation to gather data on pre-reflexive experiences and situated cognition of novices as they imitate the digital-master; interpret these findings as the basis for further research. More broadly, this study will contribute to the understanding of the conditions by which virtual reality applications can fulfill transmission through imitation.

Funded by the EPFL-UNIL Collaborative Research on Science and Society (CROSS).

Principal investigators:

Prof. Sarah Kenderdine, EPFL

Prof. Dennis Hauw, Institut des Sciences du Sport, University of Lausanne