Digital Modeling of Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage

Virtual Sambor Prei KukThe Virtual Reconstruction Project of the centeral temple at Sambor Prei Kuk, in Cambodia, is an attempt to apply 21st century technology to 7th century cultural heritage.

Sambor Prei Kuk (SPK) provides the earliest record of Khmer temples, predating better known (and better preserved) Angkor Wat by several centuries. Hence, the study of SPK is crucial for understanding the Khmer, pre-Angkorian tradition; and the subsequent development of temple cities such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

As befitting an important cultural heritage site, SPK has been studied by archeologists and other scholars for many years. Their work has provided much knowledge of the culture and the period, especially about the eastern expansion of Hinduism along the trade routes from its Indic origins into Southeast Asia—one of the great cultural assimilations in human history. From the fifth century until the sixteenth century, this diasporic interaction created a unique blend of canonical, local, and borrowed cultural and artistic traditions, which can be seen today in the remains of the many temple complexes along the Pacific Rim.

Much of that important work has, so far, remained the exclusive province of researchers, hidden from the general public who might justifiably find it interesting. The advent of immersive, interactive, Web-enabled, Multi User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) has provided us with the opportunity to tell the story of SPK in a way that can help visitors experience this remarkable cultural heritage as it was in the 7th century AD.

MUVEs are a new media vehicle that has the ability to communicate cultural heritage experience in a way that is a cross between filmmaking, video games, and architectural design. Unlike a film, it allows the observer to be an active participant in the experience. Unlike video games, its objective is to teach, rather than entertain. And unlike architectural design, it models—in addition to the built environment—also the people who inhabited the site, and their rituals.

But this technology is relatively new, with a short history, devoid of a comprehensive theory, and short on useful precedents to guide the development of virtual cultural heritage experiences. It certainly is a technology of illusion, creating an intangible reality. It freely borrows architectural principles, but can only be experienced through the proxy of avatars. Most importantly (and perhaps disturbingly), it requires filling in of missing details—architectural, social, ritualistic, and others—to create a ‘complete’ experience. Many of these details are based on conjecture and interpretation, informed by thorough research, as explained elsewhere in this web site. Therefore, we do not claim absolute historical accuracy: instead, we have tried to provide an experience that will convey, as best we can, the sense of ‘being’ at Sambor Prei Kuk in the 7th century AD.

New media reconstructions of historically significant sites, artifacts, and activities bring new opportunities to the practice of preservation and the communication of cultural heritage. Visual verisimilitude, coupled with non-linear storytelling, immersion, and interactivity, affect each aspect of the practice. But their critical implications are not limited to the technical aspects of representation. Rather, new media have the power to transform the practice of cultural heritage preservation and communication wholesale, possibly affecting the meaning of the heritage itself.

The relationship between a representational technologies and the cultural heritage they communicate is as ancient as civilization itself. It can be traced back to cave drawings from the upper Paleolithic age, some 40,000 years ago, which supposedly were used to help bring hunts to successful conclusion. The oral epics of Homer and others were used as a social instrument to communicate cultural heritage from one generation to another, only to be replaced by written versions in the form of scrolls, and later by codices, each of which exerted its own influence through the process of remediation: while oral renditions allowed for variations due to the skills of the bard, written forms codified the story, creating an ‘official’ version. The invention of photography early in the 19th century had a particularly strong impact on the representation of cultural heritage. The impact was even more profound with the invention of cinema—a medium able to capture the passage of time itself. The advent of digital game technology—the new medium of remediation—has the potential to affect cultural heritage in even more profound ways than before.

Like the Native American Ghost Dance of the 1890s, which was purported to invoke the return of dead warriors and restore a peaceful past before the advent of white settlers of the American Western plains, new media is a technology that has the power to create world-altering experiences of places and times that are no longer accessible. In many ways they can halt, even reverse the inexorable march of history. But rather than a spiritual belief, new media creates a tangible, shareable, participatory experience. It is an imagined, intangible experience, but a real one nonetheless. The image of history it communicates is mediated both through technology itself, and through the authors and technicians who render it. The image is comprised of a collection of methods, habits, organizations, knowledge, and a culture of preservation. The authors and technicians who wield the storytelling power may know how something is done, but are only now discovering the values implicit in their particular way of rendering the narrative.

We invite the viewers’ comments and suggestions on how successful this approach has been, and their opinion on how it might be used in the service of cultural heritage preservation and communication.

This project has been made possible through the sponsorship of the University of California Pacific Rim Research Program, by the contributions of colleagues at UC Berkeley, Claremont McKenna College, Waseda and Tokyo Universities in Japan, and Deakin University in Australia. We thank them all, as well as Garage Games who allowed us to use their Torque Game Engine to implement the project.

Yehuda E. Kalay, PhD
Professor of Architecture
University of California, Berkeley