MARÍA GÓMEZ BRAVO | Tungsteno
Natural disasters, wars or the inevitable passage of time are eroding and destroying the world’s heritage sites. Examples of this abound, including the Syrian city of Palmyra, reduced to rubble in 2015 by ISIS, the Kasubi Tombs (Uganda), destroyed by a fire in 2010, or the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, also severely damaged by a blaze in April 2019. Digital clone technology, which allows people to visit these emblematic buildings without leaving their homes, has become the key tool for immortalising them. Preserving them forever is now possible —at least virtually— and these backup copies leave the door open for them to be physically recovered in the future.
More than 1,120 sites in 167 countries have been designated as World Heritage by UNESCO in recognition of their cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. These exceptional sites also include a number of endangered properties, a Red List of sites at risk of vanishing. Conserving these and other threatened sites is the goal of the non-governmental organization CyArk, founded in 2003 by Iraqi-born civil engineer Ben Kacyra.
The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyran in 2001, at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, led Kacyra to undertake this project that aims to digitally preserve heritage, while making it accessible in a unique way. To this end, he placed the knowledge and technology of his start-up Cyra Technologies, responsible for the invention and marketing of one of the first portable 3D laser scanners, at the service of this mission.
Beyond just the laser, the project also applies the latest existing scanning technologies to compose a kind of free virtual library of these sites before they are lost forever. Thanks to the beam of pulsed light with which the surfaces are mapped, millions of information points are collected. These data, combined with photogrammetry techniques —which use high-resolution cameras and drones to capture the colour and texture of surfaces— are recorded in 3D and then hyper-realistic representations are generated.
3D laser and photogrammetry combine to extract the data with which to create hyper-realistic digital representations such as that of the Ananda ok Kyaung Monastery (Myanmar). Credit: CyArk.
3D laser and radar to scan the Earth's surface
This use of 3D laser technology to scan buildings is not unique. Back in 2015, historian Andrew Tallon used it to digitally document Notre Dame Cathedral in detail, allowing a near-perfect digital replica to be drawn, which could help in the reconstruction of the building after the 2019 fire. The creation of detailed maps using the laser scanner is also at the heart of the Earth Archive project, founded by archaeologist Chris Fisher, which has the goal of safeguarding heritage threatened by the climate crisis, both cultural and archaeological heritage as well as ecological heritage.
Designed as an open-source record of the planet, its aim is to scan the entire surface of the Earth using an air mapping system, a device that combines scanning and radar to geolocate and construct such maps in 3D. The same technology, that has already led to the discovery of everything from pre-Columbian cities to other ancient capitals lost in the middle of the jungle, has just now reached consumer electronics (in the form of a LiDAR scanner on the latest iPad Pro).
However, this project has not been free from controversy, from the funds needed to move it forward or the type of data it collects, to the resistance from governments and institutions when it comes to giving permission to map certain areas. Beyond this debate, what these initiatives have in common is their goal of safeguarding our architectural and cultural heritage. With this aspiration in mind, alliances are now underway to forge ahead with this digital preservation. This is how the Open Heritage project was born, which in 2018 brought together CyArk and Google with the aim of capturing all the necessary data and then recreating emblematic places virtually and making them available to users through the web. This initiative has already “virtually” preserved some sites affected by natural disasters, such as the Ananda Ok Kyaung Buddhist temple in Bagan (Myanmar). In 2016, this temple was damaged by an earthquake, but can now be visited interactively in 3D thanks to CyArk's pre-disaster scanning of the site.
The Open Heritage project unites Google and the CyArk organization to make available to users exceptional places that are virtually recreated. Credit: Google Arts & Culture.
Visit the wonders of the world without leaving home
Open Heritage forms part of the Google Arts & Culture platform, that promotes the philosophy of making monuments and works of art accessible to everyone. Since its creation in 2011, the tech giant has collaborated with more than 2,000 cultural institutions in 80 countries, allowing visitors to use the Internet to tour these places, and even those that have already been destroyed. An example is the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, which in 2018 suffered a fire that caused losses of incalculable historical and artistic value. Fortunately, the collection had been digitised a few years before the incident, and thanks to Google it is now possible for anyone to take a virtual tour of the museum as it existed before the tragic fire.
Initiatives such as Virtual Wonders with Petra, for example, also use ultra-high-resolution image capture techniques to recreate a virtual model of the city, offering a similar experience to that provided by Airpano for the Taj Mahal or the pyramids of Egypt. These digital travel portals, along with many others, can be grouped together with those found in Google’s digital catalogue, which includes art collections such as the Orsay Museum in Paris, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and even emblematic open-air sites such as Mount Rushmore in the United States or the Palace of Versailles in France.
These virtual travel sites allow us to make the most of this time of forced confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this way, the thousands of people who cannot physically visit these monuments and museums, much less travel anywhere, have the opportunity to enjoy a new form of tourism that transports them virtually to these exceptional places. What’s more, the essence of these exceptional sites have been safeguarded for all time.