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Cultural Tourism Through VR

Have you ever wished you could teleport to the ancient temples of Greece, or stand directly under George Washington’s stone chin?

Well, virtual reality is making all that, and more, possible. All you need is a headset.

I attended the Explore Your World in VR with CyArk: Exploratorium After Dark event at San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum of science, art and human perception in San Francisco. The Exploratorium itself was an incredible blend of science and magic, using interactive displays to teach people about everything from the physics of magnets to the how your perception of color can change in different environments. Through the hundreds of interactive displays and beyond the observatory outside lay the night’s true gem—exploration through VR.

CyArk is a nonprofit organization dedicated to digitally archiving world heritage sites for preservation and education. Today, they brought these sites to life through VR for all the museum goers. Of course, I had to test them all out.

CyArk offered three experiences for you to try; Mount Rushmore, Ancient Corinth in Greece and Bagan, Myanmar. I tried the Mount Rushmore experience first, and as someone who has only the vague memory of seeing the stone faces of our four presidents from far away many years ago, this experience was surreal.

Once you’ve pulled on the HTC Vive headset and you’re handed a controller, you’ve been dunked into an entirely different experience. It doesn’t matter that you can’t hear the sounds—everywhere you look, you feel like you’re there. Suddenly you’re surrounded by stark cold stone walls, bleached white from years in the sun. Across from you are the famous Black Hills, looking very much more green than black, with the tall trees brushing the cloudless blue horizon. Look up and you’ll see George Washington’s nose looming above you, his stone eyes staring stiffly into the distance. You can even jump to other points on the mountain to stare at the other three presidents, all by pressing a button on your controller and pointing to the place you want to go. CyArk also had a feature built into this experience where you could drill into the side of the mountain using a drill. Your surroundings shake once you turn the drill on, making you feel like you’re actually drilling on the mountain and could slip at any moment. CyArk’s interactive element isn’t the only reason why the Mount Rushmore experience is so unique—you need national security clearance to get there.

This technology is amazing because it opens up a realm of experience that hasn’t existed before—virtual cultural tourism. According to Makenna Murray, Development Officer for CyArk, CyArk hopes to bring virtual cultural tourism into education as well as the commercial industry, making being worldly and travelling an opportunity that eventually any child can have.

“Having these informal areas for education is a really powerful tool for people to actually engage outside of the classroom and educate people in that informal way,” said Murray. “Often, kids these days don’t get out of the classroom and don’t have those extra enrichment activities that are so key to actually retaining so much of this information.”

However, the applications don’t just stop at education for youth—the industry is hoping to grow to be included in private homes as well. “This is projected to be a huge commercial industry for private use as well,” said Murray. “People are buying these headsets for gaming, and we hope that they’ll really explore the world and really get excited and maybe travel to some to these places themselves after having ‘been’ to them.”

So how do they do it? Rather than constructing the virtual reality experience off of artist renderings or CGI, CyArk uses light transfer and light detection and ranging to capture the physical geometry of the sites. By using laser detectors, site mappers are able to record the geo-located coordinates of a site. They then take a large amount of photography and drone footage, combine them, and map the images onto the geometric data gathered previously. This method is what makes the sites have so much texture and gain a true to life sense of realism, according to Murray.
CyArk’s digital archiving work means that sometimes they are able to capture imaging for sites that may not exist anymore. This is exactly the case for another site they were showcasing at the Exploratorium—Bagan, Myanmar. Bagan, an ancient city in Myanmar, is most famous for its temple town, which is home to a 26 square mile area filled with over 2000 ancient temples and pagodas. The image that we see of a pagoda when we put the headset on, however, no longer exists today—an earthquake late this summer damaged nearly 200 Buddhist temples and pagodas in the area, according to a BBC report. This pagoda, in particular, had its roof cave in, and work is still being done on restoring it. The story underlines another perk to the magic of cultural tourism—you can now not only teleport but go back in time and view sites just as they were.
The experience for Myanmar was somehow more incredible than the others combined, because you could physically walk into the temple and take in everything about an area that, if visited in real life, would be crawling with tourists. The emptiness of the pagoda is somehow calming as you walk through, observing everything from the carvings in the ceiling to the different positions of the Buddha on each wall. If you walked outside the pagoda, you could see the hundreds of others surrounding you stretching for miles. You could almost feel the sticky heat baking into your skin from the sun above. What was most mesmerizing, I think, is that you could actually hold a 3-D model of the pagoda you’d just entered, swirling it around to see every single angle, including the roof. Sanskrit plaques carved into stone on the inside walls translated before your very eyes, with pop-ups informing you of what their significance was at the time and the present day.
Experiences like these are no small feat, and CyArk hopes to eventually bring virtual cultural tourism further into the realm of reality by integrating ambient sound recorded at the site, making it more immersive than ever and helping virtual tourists feel “gently alive,” in Murray's own words. She also mentioned the group is hoping to toy around with narration, allowing users to have a “tour guide in your back pocket.”
“Our end goal is really to inspire curiosity and creativity using these sites and really bring people together,” Murray added. “In many instances being able to take people to places that are long since destroyed, or people who are not able to physically travel to these places… being able to take them there is a really powerful experience.”

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