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Lost worlds become virtual heritage

Story Highlights

• Virtual heritage aims to recreate ancient heritage sites, as well as to people them and furnish them in a historically authentic way.
• Participants will be able to navigate around the sites, as well as between historical eras.
By Michelle Jana Chan
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Six of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World have vanished into history, like the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which crumbled into the sea after an earthquake, and the Statue of Zeus, destroyed by fire thousands of years ago. Only the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt remain on the list.

But now there may be a way to recreate these ancient heritage sites, as well as to people them and furnish them in a historically authentic way. Virtual heritage technology aims to recreate a three-dimensional navigable world and also to provide something much less tangible -- a sense of look and feel.

'Seeing is believing,' says Dimitris Efraimoglou, Managing Director of the Foundation of the Hellenic World in Athens. 'Virtual reality is providing the basis for understanding historical places in a more visually stunning way. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what a moving picture - that you can control -- is worth?'

Among its many projects, The Foundation of the Hellenic World showcases a virtual reproduction of the ancient Agora, whose ruins are located a short distance from this multimedia museum. Set in a dome-shaped virtual reality theater, visitors watch the show unfold through a pair of special stereoscopic glasses, which create the illusion of depth, and interact with the program through a personal keyboard, joystick and display screen. A guide draws in the audience by asking simple questions like: 'Do you want to move left or right?' Viewers place their votes, and the computer calculates an average movement of the audience's joysticks to direct navigation through the virtual world.

Dimitris Efraimoglou says with every new audience, a new virtual route is created. 'It's a more personal experience when a show gets created with every viewing,' he says. 'It also means people can come a second or third time.'

The Greek capital city of Athens is endowed with a generous array of ancient ruins, including the Acropolis, which is situation just 2 km away from the Foundation, but it is this virtual heritage technology, which Efraimoglou insists, makes life in the ancient Hellenic world much more real. 'With virtual reality, you are the director. You can choose to stand in the middle of the building, turn around, navigate through it, even fly over it -- and all at your own pace. In a pre-recorded video, you can't do any of this. That is the greatest benefit.'

Not only can you move between buildings and spaces, but also between time. In September, the Foundation of the Hellenic World launches a new show, 'Athena in the Classical Agora', which charts the ascendancy of Athens over the course of two centuries. The audience will watch the city rise up from the ashes, after the Persian War, and see the construction of new shops and theaters, as commerce and culture flourishes. Visitors will be able to move between the centuries, as well as between buildings. 'It's like an interactive game,' Efraimoglou says, 'and we have found children love it. They scream out ''move to the right, move to the right' and it gets them involved in history.'

Dr. Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, Director of MIRALab at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, aims to take virtual heritage one step further. Instead of visiting a particular museum to see an ancient wonder unfold before your eyes, the professor of computer science wants to be able to travel through time and space anywhere in the world.

'The big idea for the future is you just put on your special glasses and see things like they used to be,' she says. 'If you are in an old building in London, you can discuss in the language of the time with people of the time, just how it used to be. We will be able to enjoy cultural heritage dynamically instead of going to hundreds of museums.'

At present, creating this type of cultural heritage just isn't affordable. A vast amount of research is required to virtually reconstruct each historical location, which must then be encoded into an animated world. The special glasses required to observe the virtual animation currently cost more than US$3,000 and the 'portable' computer is still too large for individuals to carry.

'The glasses should be cheaper,' Magnenat-Thalmann says, 'and the portable computer much smaller. The concept is there but the problem is to make it for the mass market. It is too expensive right now. We need glasses that cost 1 Euro.'

Magnenat-Thalmann's MIRALab is already responsible for a virtual heritage program in Pompeii. The team studied museum artifacts and replicated them in a virtual way, to help show life in the Italian city as it was before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, nearly 2000 years ago.

'Instead of seeing blocks of stone, you can walk into a tavern and see frescoes, bread, bottles of wine, and people talking to each other in Latin,' Magnenat-Thalmann says. 'With your 3 D glasses and a pocket computer, you can see life as it used to be, in real time.'

With advances in technology, you won't even have to travel to Pompeii or any particular archaeological site. Eventually, these virtual heritage sites will be available online. 'Instead of going to a museum,' Magnenat-Thalmann says, 'you will be able to see how life was at anytime, anywhere. You won't need to read books. Wherever you are, you will dynamically see the history there. That's the goal of cultural heritage: to be able to see any period of history. Virtual heritage can create a three-dimensional world that used to exist at any time in history.'

Efraimoglou agrees that is still some way off. 'Right now, our animated people aren't very real looking,' he confesses, 'so we keep the human factor to a minimum. The geometry is very complicated so it looks something like a video game with a rough cartoon image of a person who moves very mechanically.'

'Remember we are not trying to make a Jurassic Park or Star Wars or Titanic,' Efraimoglou adds. 'We are trying to educate here. As the capacity of a computer grows, we will get much heavier geometry. When I look back to when we started eight years ago, the capability was childish. We couldn't have shadows. We had cardboard images. Now, things are better but there is still a long way to go. True photo realism is the ultimate holy grail of computer graphics.'

Visitor numbers are proving the success of these virtual worlds. In March this year, there were 5000 visitors to the Foundation of the Hellenic World. Most will have also visited the real Acropolis, just 2 km away. 'I think the ideal visit to Athens is to go and see the ruins, then come here to see our representation and then return to the ruins again,' Efraimoglou says. 'That experience, before and after the virtual tool, can be earth-shattering.'

It's not yet possible for Internet browsers to visit these virtual heritage sites on their home computers because of limitations in bandwidth and processing power. In the mean time, the entire shows are transferable and The Foundation of the Hellenic World wants to do more of that. It has plans to have a virtual Olympic exhibition in Beijing in 2008 and then in London in five years time. 'All you need is a disc with all the content and a similar facility in the other destination,' Efraimoglou says. 'The rest is easy. Remember, in the virtual world, you can go anywhere.'

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Special glasses to observe virtual animation cost more than $3,000.

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