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.


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