Lhasa VR: Visualizing the Historic Tibetan Capital
The University of Virginia is combining its scholarly and technological leadership in the respective fields of Tibetan studies, Architecture, and virtual reality to create an interactive 3D model of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The project, part of a Mellon Foundation grant that dates back to 2009, focuses on taking virtual reality out of the realm of entertainment to put into use as a scholarly tool as part of a consortium of universities from around the world, including UCLA, and Maynooth College in Ireland. Leading the project at UVA are Will Rourk, Cultural Heritage Data Specialist with the Scholar's Lab with the University of Virginia Library, David Germano, director of UVA's Tibet Center, Kurtis Schaeffer, chair of Religious Studies, and Guoping Huang, faculty in the School of Architecture. “We have been working in virtual reality since the early 2000s and this is a continuation of that work but advancing it to a higher, more interactive level with some of the technologies that the project consortium has adopted. Those technologies include a 3-D gaming engine called Unity 3D, which we have used to articulate a comprehensive GIS of historic Lhasa.”
Working with Architecture School student Zihao Zhang and Tibet Center staffer Steve Weinberger, the team created historic maps of pre-Chinese-occupied Lhasa, prior to the destruction of much of its historic fabric in 1959 onwards, and then extended that back to the mid-17th when critical changes were initiated in Lhasa by the fifth Dalai Lama. The consortium is using Drupal and the Unity 3D tool to allow scholars to interact directly with every building and object, all of which are linked to the Tibetan and Himalayan Library’s Places Database. “We wanted to allow people to interact with these pieces,” Rourk said, “and possibly feed data right back into the database, with the result that the data is deeply contextualized in meaningful ways.” The consortium is currently waiting to hear about a possible third phase of Mellon funding that would enable, in this case, an even more public crowd sourcing interface empowering a broader range of scholars from the Tibetan Studies and Architectural communities to join in their efforts.