Can Virtual Reality (VR) technology, which enables immersive digital experiences that mimic reality, be used as a tool for preservation of cultural heritage sites, city planning, and even a more peaceful world? According to NMBU-researcher Ramzi Hassan it can be used as a very effective tool for this and much more.
Hassan is an Associate Professor of the Department for Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), and founder and principal of NMBU’s Virtual Reality Lab (VR-Lab).
Recently, he was invited to give a speech during The United Nation (UNs) international media seminar on Peace in the Middle East on his innovative projects in Palestine, using VR-technology as a tool for documentation of cultural heritage sites and historically important landscapes – and contributing to aims such as identity building, preservation, better city planning and increased tourism in the process.
Preserving cultural heritage for future generations
«VR-technology could really make a difference in elevating public awareness towards cultural heritage sites,» he explained, adding that many historical sites in Palestine are just left to die.
During his visits to Palestine he was visiting many historical sites and felt sad they were being neglected and left to fall into disrepair.
«Ancient sites, spread around Palestine stand as reminders and evidence of a long and rich cultural history. However, most of these sites are deteriorating. There are no clear professional planning strategies for dealing with them.
«They are fighting about the land in Palestine and I’m afraid one day they will wake up and find that there is nothing left to fight about any longer. They do not preserve historical landscapes and cultural heritage for future generations,» he said.
As a result, Hassan decided to submit a proposal to The World Bank on this issue in cooperation with Birzeit University in Palestine and NMBU in Norway.
The World Bank funded ambitious VR-project
Hassan received a grant from the Quality Improvement Fund (QIF)/World Bank to start implementing a project to use virtual technology to enhance the level of awareness and understanding of historical landscapes, and for training local resources in utilising this technology.
Hassan’s research, publications and teaching focus on digital applications for landscape and urban design. His current research area involves interactive environments, which explores the potential for using virtual technologies as a storytelling medium when applied to cultural heritage sites and historically important landscapes. Though originally from Palestine himself, he has spent most of his professional life working in The Netherlands and Norway.
In the project financed by The World Bank, VR-technology was used as an experimental tool to investigate processes and potentials to study, document and communicate information on historically important sites in Palestine.
Reconstructed historical palace digitally
At Hisham Palace in Jericho, the archaeological excavations carried out identified the ruins as a palatial complex built during the Umayyad period in the first half of the eighth century A.D. .
Hassan organised a team of historians, architects, planners, archaeologists and 3D-modellers to work in this project reconstructing the historical site digitally. The reconstruction and modelling process went through a set of stages: data collection, site analysis, creation of a 3D digital library of project components, 3D modelling of the site and model assembly, before the team could present a digital reconstruction of the historical palace. See a video of the work process below:
Using VR-technology, it is now possible to «visit» and immerse yourself in the digital reconstruction of this palace digitally, and to teleport to different sections of the palace.
VR a viable alternative
«Because of missing strategies and resources dealing with historical sites in Palestine, using VR for cultural heritage sites – as was done in the Hisham Palace case - could become a medium for preservation, documentation, interpretation and intervention, education, tourism and raising the public awareness regarding the significant value of the local heritage,» Hassan explained.
«This experiment represents a pioneering case in Palestine and the outcome of this project experience will inspire other possible uses of VR for other sites. Also, in conflict regions like Palestine, there should be potentials to use VR in presenting and communicating the past and so providing the public with models reflecting the dominant ideologies and cultural heritage,» he said.
In his opinion, the visual landscape and cultural heritage sites in Palestine are very important for reasons of identity, environmental integrity and economic development.
«In recent decades, changes in the landscape of Palestine have occurred rapidly and dramatically. Since 1995, the Palestinian national authorities have promoted the protection of historical sites as a national objective, but failed to make them a priority.
«It has become clear that the political situation in Palestine is stagnating, which prevents implementation of long-term strategies connected to preservation or documentation of valuable historical sites. Ironically, the struggle in Palestine is all about the land, but resources and strategies to deal with and protect historically important landscapes and cultural heritage sites are lacking.
«The absence of mechanisms to convey the importance of historical places and landscapes leads to new generations of citizens who do not see meaning and value in historical places. It is necessary to change the mentality towards archaeological, cultural monuments and historical landscapes as a common good. The monuments of the past not only carry a powerful spiritual potential but also promote the development of the tourist infrastructure, which potentially can ensure an additional inflow of economic resources into the country. With no prospect for a political solution on the ground, new, creative, and out-of-the-box thinking is required,» he concluded.
Introducing a Digital Heritage Platform for Palestine
Hassan has currently started working on a new project, which objective is to develop an interactive digital heritage platform for cultural heritage sites in Palestine.
The technological platform is based on low cost digital technologies and open source tools, such as Virtual Reality, Panoramic Spherical Photogrammetry, Spatial Database, Geographic Information Systems and Three-dimensional Geometric Modelling.
The project will build a digital heritage platform that will facilitate a virtual story-guided cultural heritage application.
It will enable access to cultural heritage sites and landscapes, which are sometimes inaccessible to the public, by re-creating them digitally and then publishing them in various media formats. The project will implement a new outreach strategy for enhancing public awareness towards cultural heritage sites by incorporating the digital heritage platform into the education system at schools and museums.