This discussion concerns the Western Han Dynasty Virtual Museum project. The project started in 2008 with collaboration between the Xi'an Jaotong University and the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California, Merced. This collaboration was later extended to the Xi'an Municipal Cultural Relics Conservation and Archaeological Research Institute (China), and the Italian National Research Council (CNR-ITABC). For this project, researchers digitally documented Western Han Dynasty relics of the Shanxi Province, with two primary purposes, the first being the preservation of some of the most representative artefacts of the Dynasty, which are at risk of destruction owing to urban development. In fact, the city of Xi'an, ancient capital of the Western Han Dynasty (under the name of Chang'an), is experiencing such rapid urban development that every year archaeologists discover hundreds of monuments during emergency surveys on construction sites that they cannot preserve due to lack of economic resources. The second purpose was to disseminate information about the Western Han Dynasty through 3D reproductions and reconstructions of its material past (for a detailed description of the project, see Forte et al. 2010; Galeazzi et al. 2010; Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco and Galeazzi 2013).
The final outcomes of the overall project were two different off-line digital installations placed in two locations: the University of California, Merced (Forte et al. 2010) and the City University of Hong Kong (Kenderdine et al. 2012). Later developments of the project involved the creation of an immersive system for research and analysis of Western Han tombs (Forte and Kurillo 2010). 3D replicas of Western Han Dynasty monuments and artefacts were displayed in three different immersive displays: the Powerwall at the University of California, Merced (Galeazzi et al. 2010), a 360-degree 3D panoramic space (Advanced Visualisation Interaction Environment – AVIE) at the University of Hong Kong, China (Kenderdine et al. 2012), and a 3D real-time environment (Forte and Kurillo 2010).
The Powerwall is a high-resolution display wall at the University of California, Merced, which is used for projecting large, computer-generated images. It is complemented by a Vicon full-body optical tracking system that allows full-body immersion in a virtual environment (Camporesi and Kallmann 2013). The Virtual Museum of the Western Han Dynasty for the Powerwall was developed using an open-source 3D graphics engine, OGRE. This platform seemed the best option for the development of immersive applications in research institutions, because it is free and allows the developers easier access and the ability to share resources and results. The Powerwall was used to visualise the 3D reconstruction of one of the 3D reconstructed tombs of the Western Han Dynasty (M27), which was complemented by a 3D mind-map (cybermap) revealing all the spatio-semantic relationships of the paintings found in the main tomb chamber (Galeazzi et al. 2010; Figures 1 and 2). M27 is the logical and practical result of the revolutionary historical moment in which it was built – the end of the Western Han Dynasty – and its paintings partially narrate and describe this period. They are visual narratives composed of scenes and themes.
The paintings are realised on a white clay stratus that hides the material support, giving the sense of an immaterial whole with intangible boundaries constituted by the frescos' contents and spatial and semantic relationships. We thought that a better understanding of the tomb's contents would be facilitated by removing these intangible boundaries through a simulation process that allowed the potential semantic re-composition of the tomb, creating new metaphors of learning and communication. From our perspective, a cybernetic approach to the interpretation of the tombs, realised through the cybermap, could emphasise the iconographic complexity and the strong symbolism that springs from the scenes of the tomb frescos. The cybermap was conceived as a guide for a virtual tour, showing the main iconographic themes and paths; it therefore helps people to re-create narratives, moving from one scene to another in the right sequence. If the material monument represents the tangible remains of Western Han heritage, the frescos' spatial relations are traces of its intangible heritage. The map schematises the themes and simplifies the information, as well as revealing the Chinese way of storytelling through paintings on ancient monuments and how it differs from the Western approach (Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco and Galeazzi 2013). Westerners are used to storytelling in a linear path via superimposed registers (Borra et al. 2006), while the path of the frescos in the Western Han tombs is circular and in continuous movement (Di Giuseppantonio Di Franco and Galeazzi 2013). According to Nisbett, 'Chinese people think the world is a circle; "westerners" that it is a line. The Chinese believed in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state' (2003, 5).
Following the Powerwall experience, the Western Han Dynasty Virtual Museum was also displayed in the application Rhizome of Western Han (Figure 2) at the Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualisation and Embodiment (ALiVE) at the City University of Hong Kong, using AVIE (Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment). The AVIE 360-degree stereoscopic interactive visualisation system is a cylindrical projection screen that uses camera tracking of visitors' movements to create interactive relationships between the visitor and the reconstructed/simulated environment (Kenderdine et al. 2012, 145–46; fig. 3). This system allowed an immersive experience with Western Han Dynasty material culture through two different scenarios:
When compared to the Powerwall experience, the AVIE's multimodality gives an increased immersivity, owing to the visualisation in 360 degrees. Instead of being in front of a screen with the reconstructed environment, with AVIE the user stands in the centre of the reconstructed monument. The sense of immersion is not complete though, as this structure lacks the interaction with ceiling and floor that one would have inside immersive CAVE systems (Forte 2014, 22; Gaugne et al. 2014; Christou et al. 2006).
In a subsequent study by Maurizio Forte and Gregory Kurillo, M27 was inserted in a newly designed tele-immersive real-time system, to facilitate remote collaboration between scholars, with up to five users at a time sharing the same virtual space while being able to interact with 3D replicas in real-time (Forte and Kurillo 2010). With this kind of system, each user navigates and interacts with the simulated environment in the first-person perspective (which is represented in real-time in the immersive environment), and can select and manipulate objects, measure them, and obtain metadata of the objects from drop-down menus. This immersive system was used for re-contextualising and studying all the artefacts found in one of the reconstructed tombs (M1) during the excavation. As Forte and Kurillo (2010, 160) explain, 'the tentative repositioning of the objects, after the restoration, is very important since it is possible to study their volumetric relations with the funeral chamber, the rituals and their social symbolic value'. In other words, this kind of tele-immersive system allows international scholars to collaborate actively on the study and interpretation of the past through its virtual material remains (Figure 3).
3D immersive systems such as those described above are rarely used in museums or similar facilities owing to economic constraints and the need for specialised technical support to develop and maintain the necessary infrastructure. Consequently, museum and heritage specialists who are keen to use immersive systems for the virtual display of cultural contents tend to rely on cheaper, user-centred infrastructures that provide immersivity through multi-user virtual reality installations, such as the one described in the following case-study, The Virtual Museum of the Ancient Flaminia.
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