Carnegie Mellon University
April 11, 2022

CMU Projects Unmask Secret Printers, Teach Shakespeare in VR

National Endowment for the Humanities-funded projects apply emerging technologies for research, teaching

By Stefanie Johndrow

At the core of a humanities education is the study of the human experience, and that experience is being transformed by the emergence of big data, computational thinking and virtual reality.

Using technologies like these as tools for uncovering lessons about our history and culture, two Carnegie Mellon University projects have received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Christopher Warren, associate professor of English and history and associate department head of English; Max G’Sell, assistant professor of statistics and data science; Samuel Lemley, curator of special collections at CMU Libraries; and Matthew Lincoln, senior software engineer for text and data mining at JSTOR Labs, received a Digital Humanities Advancement grant for their project Freedom and the Press before Freedom of the Press. In addition, Stephen Wittek, an assistant professor of English, received a prototyping grant for Shakespeare-VR.

“These NEH grants will support educators and scholars in enriching our understanding of the past and enable cultural institutions from across the country to expand their offerings, resources and public programming,” says NEH Acting Chair Adam Wolfson.

Freedom and the Press before Freedom of the Press: Tools, Data and Methods for Researching Secret Printing

For fear of persecution and punishment, printers in the 17th and 18th centuries declined to attach their names to controversial books and pamphlets, leaving the origins of many historical texts unidentified. Warren, G’Sell, Lemley and Lincoln aim to produce tools and data that will allow for greater understanding of notable printers in the English-speaking world, specifically around the prehistory of the First Amendment. By knowing what was dangerous about making and circulating these arguments, one can understand why the amendment exists.

“We’re interested in the actual, literal presses that were used to print politically sensitive pamphlets, often ones that questioned the legitimacy of monarchy,” Warren says. “Printers are printing books that challenge religious orthodoxy. They’re printing books and pamphlets that raise uncomfortable questions for particular audiences. If people think they’re going to be jailed or worse for what they’re printing, they’re going to do everything they can to cloak their identity.”

But certain characteristics make printers of past documents possible to identify.

“The most persuasive evidence of clandestine printing often lies below the threshold of human attention — in minute typographical details, recurring pieces of damaged type, similar or divergent paper stocks, or tiny variations in print shop practices, observable only at scale,” Warren says.

Lemley notes that the labor-intensive work of scouring printed records “requires myopia-inducing focus and entire careers spent traveling to see hundreds of copies of books in libraries around the world. Even then, the judgment of experts remains subjective.”

“Our methods, which are really new tools for doing research with rare books, promise to push the field known as analytical bibliography in new and exciting directions,” Lemley says.

The grant will support research to help identify distinctive features of 241 late 17th-century printers by Warren and the team. The tools the group will be developing as part of the grant include the Digital Library of Distinctive Type and G’Sell’s Coloring Book Paper Analysis Tool.

Both are for researchers who have an interest in the history of clandestine printing and are hoping to discover who printed a certain text.

The project draws from previous research from Warren and his team. In 2019, the group discovered the printers of “Areopagitica,” one of the most significant documents in the history of the freedom of the press, and later, the printer of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan.”

Carnegie Mellon’s Stephen Wittek (left), Jaehee Cho and Ralph Vituccio are using virtual reality technologies to bring students face-to-face with William Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare in Virtual Reality

Launched in 2019, Shakespeare-VR uses virtual reality technologies to bring students face-to-face with professional actors performing Shakespeare in venues like the Globe Theatre in London, England.

“Shakespeare has this enormous footprint in our culture,” Wittek says. “He’s by far the most celebrated author in the Western canon and probably in the history of human letters.”

Through the grant, Wittek and his team will hire professional actors and film their performances of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Those filmed performances will become the basis for a 3D, virtual reality reconstruction. The VR technologies are designed by Jaehee Cho, a 2016 graduate of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), and Ralph Vituccio, an ETC associate teaching professor, and aim to approximate the feeling of performing.

“The number one way to understand Shakespeare is to attend a live performance,” Wittek says. “It is really essential to try to get students outside of the classroom and give them the real feel. VR provides the next best experience.”

After a 2018 visit to the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, Vituccio saw the potential of placing a user in a Shakespeare play and giving them the ability to interact with other characters. Through Shakespeare-VR and his own VR productions, he has witnessed what VR can add to the learning experience.

“I believe certain serious immersive VR interactions can be used to induce empathetic reactions aimed at social change,” Vituccio says. “It’s somewhat like allowing users to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ and experience life through another’s eyes. Allowing users to play a part in a Shakespeare play, interacting and talking with other characters, I believe will be a transformational experience.”

Shakespeare-VR is free to use, aims toward education and provides a historical perspective and context. With a VR headset on, students are able to watch Shakespearean scenes or act out parts themselves, while having full control of the stage.

“I hope Shakespeare-VR will help to introduce students to theatrical history, that it will help to enforce a sense that this literature isn’t just poetry, that it is drama and comes alive in the theater,” Wittek says.

Sarah Enloe, director of education at the American Shakespeare Center, says virtual reality like Shakespeare-VR will change the way students learn about the writer and his works.

“Your students will experience Shakespeare in a community as Shakespeare imagined it,” Enloe says.