Virtual Egyptology: a journey in time in Sansar

Voyages Live: Egypt: people arrive at the cenotaph at Gebel el-Silsila. as recreated in Sansar from a model built by INSIGHT Dr. Phillipe Martinez is centre foreground in the blue jacket

On Wednesday, October 4th, I was one of a number of people who joined a special immersive “voyage” through ancient Egypt, visiting three sites of antiquity which are not open to the public in the physical world, but which have been digitally re-produced in a virtual environment for the purposes of study, and have also been optimised for presentation in Sansar.

Joining us for the journey were Kevin Cain, Director of INSIGHT – the Institute for Study and Implementation of Graphical Heritage Techniques (also sometimes called Insight Digital) and Dr. Philippe Martinez, INSIGHT co-founder and Lead Archaeologist, author, and University of Sorbonne professor.

The cenotaph at Gebel el-Silsila, located on the banks of the river Nile, available to visit in Sansar

INSIGHT, in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, has been at the forefront of digitally capturing sites of antiquity in Egypt, and Dr. Martinez himself was one of the earliest exponents of computers and 3D capabilities in archaeology.

In the 1980s, for example, he encoded the decoration of 12000 blocks dating to the time of Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten, discovered reused in the 9th pylon at Karnak. The database was then used under artificial intelligence techniques with the output of hundreds of virtual reconstructions belonging to the first temple dedicated to the god Aten. Also around that time, he spent two years working on a 3D reconstruction of the ancient Egyptian temples of Karnak and Luxor.

Kevin Cain (l) and Dr. Phillipe Martinez (r) and, inset, their respective Sansar avatars (again, left and right)

INSIGHT’s work now involves state-of-the-art techniques such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating it  with a pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses, and photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs. INSIGHT’s work in recreating sites of anitiquity in 3D was also intriguing revealed during some of the earliest looks inside Sansar prior to the Creator Preview opening, when images of the tomb of Nakhtamon (“TT341”) were used in various promotional talks and demonstrations of the platform (see here for an example).

The tomb of Nakhtamon is one of three locations thus far reproduced in Sansar in a collaboration spanning INSIGHT, the Sansar Studios team, the University of Sorbonne and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. Both it and the cenotaph at Gebel el-Silsila, were scheduled stops on the tour, but such was the interest shown in the tour and in INSIGHT’s work, the tour was  extended to include a reconstruction a section of the Ramesseum “Coronation Wall”.

Tomb of Naktamon (“TT341”) in Sansar – part of the collaboration with INSIGHT and visited on the tour

For the purposes of the event, the two primary destinations together with the Voyage Live: Egypt experience, where people initially gathered, were spun-up in their own special instances. This meant that casual visitors to either Voyages Live: Egypt or the locations on the tour would not feel that they were intruding on a private event or have their own visit spoiled by a group of avatars suddenly crowding them out and getting in the way.

This in itself demonstrated a key strength of Sansar: the ability to spin-up instances of experiences to deal with special events and the like, without necessarily having to close them off from public access / other uses occurring at the same time.

The Ramesseum “Coronation Wall” reproduced as a 2 million poly model in Sansar, optimised from an 800 million poly original.

At Voyages Live: Egypt, attendees were introduced to Kevin Cain and Philippe Martinez, and a little time was spent talking about INSIGHT’s work, the backgrounds of our guides (Mr. Cain, a specialist in computer graphics and imaging worked widely in the film industry before a fascination with preserving sites of antiquity drove him to establish INSIGHT as a non-profit entity specialising in the digital recording and mapping of sites of antiquity, as which has now worked in a dozen countries around the globe).

INSIGHT’s work is not only fascinating from a lay perspective – offering the potential for VR and a platform like Sansar to open-up historical sites for education and learning across all ages without putting the actual site at risk – but because it is of very real benefit in helping to preserve ancient sites from accidental damage, whilst providing archaeological teams an opportunity to effectively study locations even when the locations themselves are not open to study, again to help preserve them.

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