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Cultural Virtual Reality Lab, UCLA College

  • By Meg Sullivan
  • Published Jul 1, 2003 8:00 AM

Santiago de Compostela, a medieval cathedral in northwestern Spain, was once a popular destination for religious pilgrimages. Yet today, little is left of its ancient architecture to suggest its allure for pilgrims.

Archaeologists believe that the Inca marked the summer solstice by watching the sun move through a series of astronomical markers along the shores of Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia. But this ritual is hard to envision centuries later because the Inca Temple of the Sun lies in ruins.

And how can one experience the richness of the Roman Forum at its apex when only two of its 22 structures have survived intact?

A team of UCLA scholars and students has figured out how to reclaim from antiquity such lost treasures and restore them to their former glory by harnessing the power of virtual reality. The team is breathing new life into the crumbled remains of more than a dozen cultural heritage sites around the globe.

Using flight visualization technologies, 3-D imaging software and the same kind of digital magic used by movie studios, UCLA’s Cultural Virtual Reality Lab (CVRLab) has created large-scale digital models that allow viewers to “walk” through monuments that today lie in ruins, have eroded beyond recognition or have disappeared altogether.

Their 3-D creations are much more than colorless, flat architectural sketches. Time travelers can experience such telling details as the play of light across long-vanished surfaces and the haunting echo of speeches and songs in halls that no longer exist. The experience is especially vivid when the models are shown in the UCLA Visualization Portal, a state-of-the-art screening facility built by Academic Technology Services for campus researchers. With a floor-to-ceiling spherical screen and an immersive virtual reality display, the portal produces an effect similar to IMAX movies with one key exception: Viewers actually can pick their own course of exploration.

“This is a kind of cultural time machine that explores the prime real estate of human history,” says Bernard Frischer, a professor of classics and the lab’s founder.

The lab recently unveiled its most ambitious project to date, a re-creation of 22 buildings and monuments in the Roman Forum. Three years in the making, the Virtual Forum is based on the most up-to-date research of the most studied archaeological site in history.

Along with an earlier reconstruction of the Roman Colosseum, the Virtual Forum is the centerpiece of Rome Reborn, a long-term project to re-create digitally thousands of structures from early fifth-century Rome.

“Soon we will be able to give people the experience of walking down the streets of an actual city as opposed to hopping around from isolated spot to isolated spot,” Frischer says.

Each model represents a synthesis of the most advanced research done on any given site. To create the Virtual Forum, the team layered three maps of architectural remains going back to 700 B.C. Typically, the plans represent years — sometimes decades — of research by leading scholars. When details were lacking in one plan, modelers turned to competing plans, or they filled in the gaps with hypothetical segments based on comparable structures.

“We keep very careful notes so if there’s an excavation that unearths new data, we can make adjustments,” says Diane Favro, an architectural historian and the lab’s co-director.

Other completed projects include a villa in Pompeii, a medieval Armenian church in Turkey, one of Rome’s first Christian churches, England’s Beaumaris Castle and a 3,000-year-old horse stable that may have belonged to King Solomon.

John Dagenais, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, conceived of a virtual Santiago de Compostela as a teaching aid for a course on medieval literature inspired by the pilgrim route.

“I wanted my students to have a sense of that culminating moment when religious pilgrims first entered the cathedral after months of travel,” Dagenais said. The model inspired undergraduates to conduct their own original research. While in a summer-abroad program in Spain, they gathered photographs and detailed notes on sections of the cathedral. Back in Westwood, graduate students in architecture are feeding the information into the model.

Recently installed software now makes it possible to hear how medieval music would have resonated in Santiago de Compostela.

“We don’t have the sound of pilgrims’ footsteps yet,” says Dagenais, “but we’re working on them.”