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Vol.32 No.4 November 1998

Preserving Heritage Sites

Glen Fraser
Scott S.Fisher
Telepresence Research Inc.

November 98 Columns
Images and Reversals Artist's View

Scott S.Fisher
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For many of us, virtual reality is most likely to bring to mind commercial applications in industry or entertainment. However, it’s encouraging to be reminded that it is also being used towards other — some might say “nobler” — ends. One such application is the preservation and recreation of cultural and natural sites around the world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage program is charged with protecting such sites. There are many ongoing efforts to use interactive visual — and sometimes immersive — computer technologies to help in this effort.

In this issue, we are pleased to have Scot Refsland, Executive Officer of the International Society on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia (VSMM) present an overview of nine projects in this area. The projects he describes — like the people involved in them — are widely spread across the globe. They represent a good cross-section of the diverse work that’s being done to help catalogue and preserve these heritage sites, and to educate people about them. In some cases, the work is primarily intended to document the sites and thereby to help protect and maintain them for the future. Other projects use amusement park ride-style experiences to entertain and educate people at the same time. And, while virtual reality technology is certainly not intended to replace these sites (nor could it be expected to), it can allow people to gain a better appreciation and understanding of those locations that they cannot visit directly.

— Glen Fraser, Scott S. Fisher

Finding the Virtual in our World Heritage History

Scot Thrane Refsland
International Society on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia

Figure 1
Figure 1: Storm clouds approaching Virtual Stonehenge.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Summer solstice sunrise over Virtual Stonehenge.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Model of Church of St. Pantheleimon, Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Virtual reconstruction in VRML of the windmills and the Ihala/Mulli hamlet in Finland, circa 1725. Topographic data courtesy of the cartography department of Raisio City Hall.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Giza Virtual Night brings the Giza pyramids alive in a virtual CAVE projection system.

Figure 6
Figure 6: Digitizing the Terra-Cotta Warriors, Xian, China.

Figure 7
Figure 7: Taking an airboat ride through the Florida Everglades.

Figure 8
Figure 8: Virtual Great Barrier Reef lets visitors role-play marine life.

The biggest users of virtual reality in heritage applications have typically been the archaeological professions, with many highly accurate and authentic reconstructions of artifacts and heritage sites having been created, both ancient and cultural. Mostly these have been used for analysis, cataloging and recreation of the past. Outside of this area, virtual world heritage has emerged, taking it one step further. In the future it may have a role in helping to manage world heritage sites. Currently, the state of conservation of world heritage sites is monitored by the individual countries and coordinated by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. What is exciting about VR applications in world heritage sites is that not only are the sites being reconstructed virtually for cataloguing and historical research, but they are fulfilling a more immediate need for conservation and preservation of the living site. VR is now playing a vital role in assisting planners and researchers develop the best method practices to keep these sites alive and functioning.

The best-known of these VR applications is Prof. Robert Stone’s (UK) Virtual Stonehenge, commissioned through English Heritage (and co-sponsored with Intel Corporation UK) to not only catalogue and present a highly accurate model, but also to use in the planning and conservation of the site. British planning authorities have consulted the model several times to look at the most efficient way to position highway locations and visitor centres. Prof. Stone says, “This model has been extremely important in helping English Heritage preserve and plan the future of its cultural assets. Sadly, human progress has damaged Stonehenge and its environs. As a result, today’s visitor to Stonehenge is barred from actually entering the impressive stone circles and can no longer experience the historical and environmental content of the monument — sword damage inflicted by Roman Gladiators, Sir Christopher Wren’s graffiti, the different mosses and fungi. Furthermore, visitors never spend long enough at the site to appreciate the significance of the important surrounding landscape features such as the Avenue, the Cursus and the many barrows and burial chambers. Virtual reality is unlocking this wealth of historical data for access by people and cultures around the globe, whilst ensuring that the monument and site will be protected — for many more centuries — from the ravages of human progress.”

Darko Disoski’s project — the Church of St. Pantheleimon, Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia — is helping to preserve Macedonia’s cultural assets. The application virtually recreates the 6th century church located in the old part of Ohrid, under the Middle Age walls of the city acropolis. This temple is a church of the monastery, for which the history is known from written sources as well as from the archeological excavations in 1947 and 1965.

Lily Diaz–Kommonen’s “Illuminating History: Through the Eyes of Media” uses materials from archeological excavations in the Ihala Mulli site in southwestern Finland, archives and museums throughout the country to depict aspects of everyday life, from the late Iron Age through to the early 1700s. The work includes the creation of a Web site that features the use of virtual reality modeling language and QuickTime virtual reality technology for visualization of the landscape and objects through time. The project is a collaborative effort between the Media Laboratory of the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the Department of Archeology of the University of Turku, the municipality of Raisio and the Academy of Finland.

One application that brings world heritage to life from an entertainment point of view is Bino, Cool and Cpt. Cybeard’s “Giza Virtual Night.” “Giza Virtual Night” is an expansion of the film media, where the composition is interactively performed and distributed in a 10 square meter projection room called a CAVE. The composition is an artistic expression of the conceptual complex that may have caused the Egyptian Pharaoh’s effort to manifest the scene of Heaven upon the Earth. It also illuminates ancient Egypt’s iconographic mystery-language. Like virtuality, this illustrates our relation to the surface of cognition, where the past and the future intercept — as mysterious then as now. “Giza Virtual Night” is inspired by Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings, concerning Egyptian mythology, and Adrian Gilbert and Robert Bauval’s book The Orion Mystery, about the pyramids as Pharaonic stargates. It also contains a virtual excavation of the mythical Hall Of Records, which is rumored to be hidden within. It has been the ambition of the creators to give a sense of the border surface between history and virtuality, as ancient fragments of future technology present in the art.

Among the interesting technical processes for preserving world heritage artifacts is Jiang Yu Zheng’s work on the Museum of Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses in Xian, China. His work aims at a virtual recovery of excavated archaeological finds in cyberspace for ancient relic preservation, archaeology research and multimedia material generation. Many excavated pottery artifacts suffered a certain degree of damage when they were discovered. Archaeologists must spend a great deal of time restoring broken pieces before an unearthed object can be displayed to audiences. This work introduces new applications of computer vision, graphics and virtual reality in archaeology.

Difficult Sites in the Planning Stages

Among the many new sites looking to use virtual reality in a world heritage setting are Nepal and indigenous Australia. These areas are considered difficult because of the cultural sensitivity involved, or the lack of funds to properly address these issues.

Prof. Dilliraj Sharma has been researching the problem and prospect of Nepal’s world heritage sites and faces constant uphill battles. Nepal, a tiny Himalayan Kingdom, has, since the time of human settlement in its different ecological zones, possessed tremendous arts, architectural and cultural heritage in addition to its inherent natural beauty. Today, unfortunately, too many such sites are either dilapidating or losing their importance. In this sense, many historical, cultural and artistic objects have been losing their attraction and past glories. This is a serious problem that Nepal has been facing for a very long time. Many temples, palaces, monasteries and forts are either facing the problem of natural disaster or of human disturbances. From this viewpoint, there is considerable interest towards using VR for preservation and conservation of these sites.

Brett Leavy (Kooma Mardi), is an Australian Aboriginal who is pioneering the use of VR and multimedia from an indigenous context. “I am seeking funding support to visit the Cathedral to survey, record, document and annotate my special sites. This way my mob and my story can be told a ‘new’ way using the available technology without removing or disturbing the sites or any artifacts.” Leavy’s project proposes to model one traditional area of over 1,000 hectares, where there are 65 artifacts and site-significant events that could be recorded. Leavy’s initial step is a historical one — getting the tribal elders to let him record sensitive cultural heritage. But, from Leavy’s point of view, it is necessary, and can save much of the culture of his tribe and its clans.

Planned and Upcoming Sites

Two very exciting sites currently under development are the Virtual Florida Everglades and the Virtual Great Barrier Reef.

The Museum of Science and Discovery in Fort Lauderdale has an aggressive plan to use technology in its displays and exhibitions. Because of the potentially wide age range of their visitors, they wanted to create an exhibition that would appeal to young and old and as a result, they’ve brainstormed a virtual airboat ride through the glades, giving visitors a high quality view of the world heritage listed site. Prof. DeLeon, a researcher on the project from Florida Atlantic University, says “The glades are so vast that you just can’t see it all, so we’ve been planning to use a GIS image of the entire glades section. Then by using an airboat simulator, people can fly through the glades area and even go under the water and see the life from that perspective. In this way, kids can get on the ride and have a lot of fun and absorb something culturally significant at the same time.”

Another major project currently in research is the Virtual Great Barrier Reef immersive DOME installation. Currently being developed in a collaborative effort involving Scot Thrane, Takeo Ojika, Tom DeFanti and Carl Loeffler, this project is looking at VR for the masses, and is taking “marine biologist” level of information about the reef and presenting it in a Nintendo-style entertaining format. The Virtual Great Barrier Reef project is a “next generation” dynamic VR environment. It uses machine vision to track many visitors in the environment, and lets visitors role-play various types of marine life, so they can experience life on the reef first-hand. The environment uses a HDTV underwater camera system to project the real images of the reef onto the DOME system, then using machine vision, maps CG artificial life, biobots and avatars into a 3D immersive world.

Scot Thrane Refsland is currently the Executive Officer of the International Society on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia in Gifu, Japan. He is also working on his Ph.D. at Gifu University in complex evolvable immersive worlds.

Scot Thrane Refsland
Int’l Society on VSMM
Gifu University, Virtual System Lab
1-1 Yanagido Gifu 501-1193

What’s the Future of VR in World Heritage?

There’s been a lot of talk about getting more virtual reality applications in sites for conservation, planning and tourism, yet because of the cost factors and technical expertise required there are still major obstacles to be overcome. Prof. Takeo Ojika from Gifu University in Japan has proposed a solution to this problem and has organised a special session on virtual world heritage to be held during the 4th International Conference on Virtual Systems and MultiMedia in Gifu, Japan, November 18-20, 1998. “We wanted our Society, (International Society on VSMM) the host of VSMM98, to address real applications in today’s VR environment,” says Prof. Ojika. “We’ve been working very closely with UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre to develop a session which would focus upon VR applications in world heritage. This session will be a landmark in virtual world heritage as it will bring many of the important researchers in this area together to discuss and decide the best way to increase the use of VR in this important area of our world heritage.”

Ms. Minja Yang, Director of Information and Documentation for the Asia/Pacific region at the World Heritage Centre in Paris says, “We see virtual reality as a very important management and educational tool that can aid researchers and planners in the conservation and development of their world heritage sites. But at the moment the potential of this new technology is largely unknown by many site managers. We see the VSMM98 special session as a good opportunity to focus on this particular application and create a working group on world heritage to explore the potential of virtual reality in world heritage conservation and education.”

For Information on Projects Mentioned

Scott S. Fisher is a media artist and producer whose work focuses primarily on stereoscopic imaging, immersive first-person display environments and 3D books. Currently, he is Managing Director of Telepresence Research, Inc., a production company focusing on the art and design of virtual environment and remote presence experiences, and Visiting Professor in the School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA.

Glen D. Fraser is a computer engineer with a passion for virtual reality and other forms of real-time visual computing. He currently works at SOFTIMAGE, developing interactive viewing and animation tools.

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Bob Stone
Virtual Presence Limited (Northern Office)
Chester House, 79 Dane Road, Sale
Cheshire, M33 7BP U.K.

Tel: +44-(0)161-969-1155
Fax: +44-(0)161-969-1166

St. Pantheleimon
Darko Disoski
ODREDI 7/12 91000 Skopje
Skopje Macedonia 91000 Macedonia

Tel: +389-91-111-123
Fax: +389-91-112-308

Lily Diaz-Kommonen
Media Laboratory
135C Hameentie, 3rd Floor
Helsinki SF 00560 Finland

Tel: + 358-9-75630-338
Fax: + 358-9-75630-555

Ginza Virtual Night
Bino, Cool, Cybeard
Artists, asogatan 207
Stockholm 11632 Sweden

Terra Cotta Warriors
Jiang Yu Zheng
Kyushu Institute of Technology
680-4 Kawazu
Iizuka Fukuoka 820-8500 Japan

Tel: +0948-29-7779
Fax: +0948-29-77551

Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies Nepal

Brett Leavy
QANTM Australia CMC Pty Ltd.
Level 1
143 Coronation Drive
Milton, Brisbane
QLD 4064 Australia

Tel: 61-7-3291 3360
Fax: 61-7-3211 3953

Florida Everglades
Victor J. DeLeon
Fort Lauderdale Museum of Discovery & Science
Center for Electronic Communication,
220 SE 2nd Ave.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

Tel: +1-954-762-5618
Fax: +1-954-762-5658