Google Arts & Culture explores remote world heritage sites in virtual reality

Thanks to Google’s new Arts & Culture project, developed in collaboration with a non-profit called CyArk, you can tour some of the most remote and historically significant locations in the world. The Open Heritage project provides virtual access to 26 world heritage sites in 18 different countries, complete with data about each location, 3D structural models, and laser scanning technology.

“We’ve been collecting these sites for 15 years,” CyArk CEO John Ristevski told NBC News. “Google approached us about opening up our archives to a much broader audience, and we’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”

Google has provided virtual tours of historic sites before, but The Open Heritage website includes detailed photos, information about ancient artifacts, and 3D scans for anyone with a web browser or iOS or Android phone. A virtual reality (VR) headset opens a full 360-degree view captured by high-resolution cameras.

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Ristevski told Wired that even amateur historians could discover new information using Open Heritage. “Some of the exciting frontiers are in virtual reality and augmented reality and we are excited to see what type of experiences people can build around heritage data — from immersive virtual tours to overlaying rich contextual information while you are on site — they all start with an accurate map of what is there,” he said.

There’s a wide range of sites available for virtual exploration that span human history, from the ancient temples at Corinth in Greece to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

The locations featured in Google’s new online exhibit are just a few of the heritage sites that CyArk has researched since the project began in 2003. Their extensive documentation includes drone photography as well as light detection and ranging (LIDAR) measurements. LIDAR allows researchers to create exact 3D structural models accurate to within 5 millimeters.

Some of the sites are so remote, a virtual visit is likely the only way to experience them. “Many of these places, for whatever reason, are just not open to the public,” Ristevski said.

The data that Open Heritage has collected is not just being used for preservation, but restoration of ancient artifacts as well. After the foundation mapped and photographed the Buddhist temples at Bagan in Myanmar, a 2016 earthquake damaged hundreds of them and closed parts of the site. One of the Open Heritage exhibits details the reconstruction efforts that are underway, using CyArk’s data.

A favorite destination for virtual tourists is the ancient astronomical observatory at Chichén Itzá in Mexico. According to digital archeologist Chance Coughenour, it’s one of the few circular structures discovered in the Mayan ruins. “It’s been proven by researchers that the Maya used this to study the sun, sunsets, sunrise, the Equinox, and stars,” he said.

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