Journey to Humbead’s

early virtual reality experiments with humbead’s revised map of the world.

What would it mean to enter into the space of a map that itself reimagines the spatial relationships of the world?

The digital history project Revising Humbead’s Revised Map of the World: Digitally Remapping the Sixties Folk Music Revival explores a psychedelic mattering map from the later years of the Bay Area folk revival. Created in 1968 by Earl Crabb (affectionately known as Humbead, and later to become a computer programmer) and Rick Shubb (banjo capo maker, graphic artist, musician, and more), Humbead’s offers a sense of what the world looked like to participants in the West Coast folk revival. Think of the map as a precursor to Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker magazine cover View of the World from 9th Avenue.

In this project, I am curious about how digital approaches to a historical artifact yield new insights into its significance. When we move into the digital space or apply computational tactics, can we gain previously unavailable access to the artifact’s historical meanings? Can we better recover (or discover) the experiences and information embedded in the artifact?

We can use digital mapping to contextualize this data-rich artifact, whose “list of population” contains over 800 names. We can add metadata. We can apply network analysis to those names. We can look for patterns and uncover deeper structures of identity, power, and social organization as shaped by race, class, gender, region, nation, and in this case, in a funny way, imaginings of the global. We can thicken our understanding of the references and associations, many of them seriously funny (in all senses of that term), that constituted a folk music revival culture or scene. What clustering of people and place names made for a particular sense of folk music community in the 1960s?

A virtual reality approach to Humbead’s Map becomes one way for scholars, aficionados, educators, and the public at large to access the history of the 1960s folk revival on the West Coast, which remains oddly understudied compared to the East Coast.

Overall, the questions become: first, what would it mean to be able to enter into this reimagining of the world, full of information and data, and stomp around in it, immersive yourself in it, enter into it? And second, what particular virtual reality “moves” work best for this immersion?

So below, behold some (very!) early virtual reality experimentation. You’ll see the map and then we enter into it using Google Tilt Brush and an Oculus Rift headset. With the headset on, it’s more immersive than it feels in the video, but it begins to offer possibilities for how virtual reality can help us better access and understand the actual reality of the past.

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Humbeads Virtual Reality Experiment 01
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Humbeads 2
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In addition to continuing to get a better feel for what is possible in Tilt Brush, I wonder if we might eventually create a far more complex VR world using Unity software. This immersive VR in Unity might allow the user to enter in and out of places and names through additional imagery and information. You could march up to the Fillmore and then enter into a VR recreation of it using other reference images. You could click on a name from the population on the sides of the map and hear music by that person and learn more about her or his life. You could move around the playful Pangea and hear music from those different areas. You could track out networked relationships among the places and people. Sound and image could come together to, in a sense, revise Humbead’s Revised Map of the World again, enlivening us to the details that inspired Crabb and Shubb to create it in the first place.

The value of this work is twofold. First, it can produce new insights into the understudied story of the folk revival on the West Coast during the 1960s; for instance, only when I examined in virtual reality the island that constitutes the “Rest of the World” on the map did I notice that it contains more place names such as Singapore! Second, virtual reality allows us to create a new kind of digital public scholarship here, one that enlivens artifacts and their content and form for broad audiences who are curious—or might get curious.

The map is there. Now we just have to keep on the journey.

Thanks to Joe Antonioli and Alfredo Torres at Middlebury for assistance with VR experimentation.

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