Rome wasn't built in a day, but that isn't deterring a UCLA professor and a team of seven archeologists and computer scientists from recreating the ancient city, brick by brick.
Instead of lugging millions of pounds of marble like in the old days, classics professor Bernard Frischer and his team at the Cultural Virtual Reality Lab are using three-dimensional computer graphic programs to recreate antiquities down to the last detail.
The lab is just one of a handful across the globe creating authentic 3D computer models of antiquities. Already being featured in cultural exhibits, the lab's models will soon appear in interactive encyclopedias and classrooms.
"Our ultimate purpose is global, to make it easy for students and adults to understand other cultures," Frischer said. "It'd be hard for demagogues to demonize 'the other,' as a Hitler did, after children are brought up with a range of cultures and will have identified with so many others."
Goals for the lab extend beyond just education and culture.
Frischer has set up a for-profit company, called Cassiano LLC, to handle sales. The lab's team has licensed some models to Microsoft Corp. for future versions of its Encarta interactive encyclopedia, and is talking with three Web portals and two filmmakers interested in using the lab's creations in films set in ancient times.
"The people who did the model for 'Gladiator' ought to have been in touch with us," Frischer said. "Their virtual reconstruction was greatly lacking."
High cost of authenticity
A high-quality, authentic model of a historical site can cost from $50,000 to a few million dollars, as in the case of ancient Rome.
For the creation of the virtual replica of Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore as it stood in 440 A.D., two officials from the Vatican, which oversees the cathedral, consulted with the team. As a result, the lab was able to accurately recreate the cathedral as it stood before a half-dome over the apse was taken down, and before numerous small chapels were added off the sides of the rectangular main building.
A virtual tour of the Santa Maria Maggiore model, navigated with a computer's mouse, allows viewers to soar up and fly between the wooden beams of the cathedral's roof, down below the main floor into the ruins of another church upon which Santa Maria was built, and even up close to several mosaics trimming the ceiling.
In addition to recreating individual structures, the lab works on larger projects and has created much of the Roman Forum as it stood in 400 A.D., before the barbarians destroyed the city.
Frischer believes an ongoing project to recreate a comprehensive model of ancient Rome will be mostly complete in three to five years, depending on funding. UCLA provides facilities for the Cultural Virtual Reality Lab, but the lab funds its projects through contracts, gifts and grants. Two philanthropists and one foundation are currently supporting the projects, but funding runs out in September.
The lab has been a 25-year dream for Frischer. While a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in the mid-1970s, Frischer toured through an obscure museum and came upon a model, 60 feet in diameter, of ancient Rome. "I thought, 'I've just got to get this model into the mainstream, into classrooms," he recalled.
Frischer worked on video projects to replicate the model, but couldn't get the expensive computer equipment needed to create up-close-and-personal details. So his goals were put on hold.
In 1995, Frischer was hired by the J. Paul Getty Museum to consult on an exhibit for its 1997 opening. Frischer suggested creating a virtual model of Trajan's Forum, one of many public squares in ancient Rome. A team of scholars joined the project and generated a computer model.
The success of the project renewed Frischer's interest in creating 3D computer models of ancient structures and cities. Intel Corp. in late 1997 sponsored the Cultural Virtual Reality Lab, allowing Frischer to procure computers and the expensive software needed to create the models.
The models are created in a small, computer-lined room in a basement of a building on UCLA's Westwood campus. There, several computer and information scientists take historical information about structures and use high-end 3D modeling software to bring them to life.
The lab's work has found its ideal showcase since UCLA in January opened its $2 million Visualization Portal, a 40-seat virtual reality theater with a 166-degree curved screen that spans a viewer's field of vision. Currently used only for special events, it will be used next year by the medical, classics and other departments to present 3D models to students.
Internet users can tour the Santa Maria Maggiore model at www.humnet.ucla.edu/cvrlab. A virtual model of the Forum will be available on the Internet in the fall.
This year, a video of the lab's virtual model of the Forum in Rome has been showing in London's Millennium Dome, and will debut on June 27 in the new Wellcome Exhibition Gallery of the London Science Museum. The model of Santa Maria Maggiore will be featured in an exhibit in Rome's Palace of Exhibitions beginning in November.
Frischer and the lab's team plan to tackle recreating Pompeii, Shakespeare's London, and the Acropolis in Athens, among numerous other sites, with assistance from UCLA professors and students. Most of those projects are in development, but are seeking funding.
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