January 17, 2013 By Aaron Stern
It wasn’t quite teleportation, but it might have been the next best thing. Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in December were visually transported to the interior of ancient Chinese caves courtesy of a state-of-the-art panoramic 3D experience.
The Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site near the city of Dunhuang in Western China, were carved into cliffs in the fourth century and house the world’s oldest and finest collection of Buddhist murals and statues. They are also closed for preservation, off-limits from visitors, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be seen at all.
With the help of six projectiondesign F10 AS3D projectors, six PCs with game graphics cards, surround-sound and a huge, circular projection screen hung from the ceiling, visitors to the Sackler gallery were able to get a close-up view of the ancient cave’s 220-meter north wall known as Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Paradise.
The exhibit, “Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang,” was brought to Washington, D.C. from its permanent home at ALiVE, an interdisciplinary art research initiative at the City University of Hong.
“It the first time that the Dunhuang Caves, one of the most extraordinary heritage sites in the world, has been brought to life as a 1:1 scale fully immersive interactive 3D experience,” says Jeffrey Shaw, dean of the School of Creative Media at City University in Hong Kong.
Damian Leonard is the managing director of Australia-based Immersive Realisation Pty Ltd., the company that designed the system, known as AVIE (Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment), which dates back to 2004. In an email to CI, he detailed the system’s conception and its evolution.
The biggest challenge in designing AVIE, says Leonard, lay in “the design and development of the software to support the clustering of [six] high-performance image generators, capable of processing images and videos as well as rendering large virtual environments in real time, and are linked to the projectors to deliver the full immersive 3D experience.”
When it all began in 2004, Leonard and his colleagues sought a short-throw DLP projector with as large a screen resolution as possible, but back then that route offered limited options. Eventually the team settled on the projectiondesign F1+ (SXGA+ with Wide Angle Lens 1:1), and a working prototype went into action in 2006.
“Since the original prototype system, a range of projectiondesign projectors have been used across both the AVIE system and other immersive environments, from the Group 2 and Group 3 platforms, with the latest system at City University Hong Kong using the F35 AS3D projectors with XPort Expansion Cards to support side by side stereo input,” says Leonard.
The AVIE design – and the “Pure Land” exhibit – was truly an international effort. The various signaling components come from Gefen, the screen frames are custom built by Netherlands-based Huib Nelissen, and the screens themselves come from Austrian maker Tuchler. Then there are the projectors, which come from Norway-based projectiondesign. And, of course, the exhibition lives in Hong Kong and was brought to the U.S. by an Australian integrator.
The process of that export was itself a challenge, and not just the usual headaches that would normally be associated with packing, shipping and rebuilding such a complex system in just three weeks. It was further complicated by Hurricane Sandy, which delayed some logistical planning.
And ultimately, says Leonard, it was a success.
“The design and successful implementation of a real time interactive environment that provides nearly full immersion through the use of the 360 degree 3D projection environment provides the user with an uncanny realistic experience…” he says.
The project’s exhibitors at the Smithsonian would seem to agree. In a press release announcing the “Pure Land” opening, Julian Raby, director of the Sackler gallery, says it was no less than ground breaking, a sign of what technology can do for museums.
“The ‘Pure Land’ project exemplifies the exhibition experience of the future,” he says.
The exhibit closed in December, but is slated to return to the Smithsonian early this year.