Virtual Forbidden City

Imagethief has been discussing the Virtual Forbidden City. Basically this is something that looks a lot like a Second Life site but you have to download the whole thing. You get a little avatar and you can bop around the Great Within and look at stuff. Imagetheif’s readers seem to mostly be divided on whether or not lack of crowds is a good thing or a bad thing.

Frankly I think it is a pretty bad thing, in the sense that visiting the Virtual Forbidden City is simply not a substitute of any sort for visiting the real Forbidden City, reading a book about the Forbidden City, or even looking at some photos of the Forbidden City (hereafter FC).

This is not something that all of my colleagues would agree with. Some of them are real big on the value of new technology like Second Life for teaching. Oddly enough, despite the fact that I have one of those blog things, I am not sold on this. Virtual Forbidden City (hereafter VFC) is a good example of the weaknesses of all this gab about new paradigms of virtual learning.

First, VFC is not at all the same thing as actually visiting. This should go without saying. You get a bit of the sense of space you get at the real FC, but almost all of the details are washed out or just not there. Like almost all of the Second Life historical sites I have seen (which is not many) none of the VFC views are as detailed as a reasonable postcard, and like postcards it focuses on the big set-piece shots. Visiting a virtual site is like being an incurious person in a tour group. All you get to see is what everyone else wants to see. VFC is a good example of this because all they have re-created are the main postcard views. Very few interiors, and those very poor. Most of the rabbit warren of passages and courtyards that make up the FC has not been rendered, and probably never  will be.  My most vivid memory of the real FC was not looking at things that looked like postcards, but roaming around the rest of the place looking at odd views.1 What you can get from VFC you could get better from a decent photo-essay on the place. Virtual sites may improve somewhat as we get more bandwith, but the basic problem that you only see what someone goes to a great deal of effort to put there will remain the same.

On the other hand who cares if it’s not the same as actually visiting? It’s not like the options are “take your class to Beijing” or “log into the virtual forbidden city”. VFC may not be as good as the real thing, but it has to be good for something, yes? Not really. I suppose visiting VFC will teach students more about China than having them play Mario Party, but it will not teach them as much as reading (anything) or watching a bad documentary or listening to me talk. Actually, the only real educational value I can see from a second-life-y type of thing is that it -might- be helpful for students to create a site like this, which would force them to think a bit about what the essential aspects of a site are. Creating a good virtual site is like writing a term paper. Visiting one is like reading old term papers from semesters gone by.

  1. actually, the first time I was there was an ungodly cold February day and I spent a lot of time wondering what life was like as a eunuch in the FC  


  1. There are software tools which could make a quite exciting VFC, though: those systems which take hundreds or thousands of photographs and stitch them together, so you get both panoramic and (sometimes, depending on the data set) quite detailed views. I saw a presentation which used Notre Dame, and it was vivid. You can accumulate pictures from public sites like flickr, and do something really extraordinary if you’ve got a large enough data set.

  2. Jonathan’s talking about Microsoft’s Photosynth app, which is pretty mind-bending, but still very much in the proof-of-concept stage. Personally, I’d love to see a really, really well-done virtual Forbidden City, with all of the passages, side-yards, etc. intact, with a data overlay of tidbits from the Geremie Barmé book. It wouldn’t replicate the experience of actually being there, but it could make for a pretty engaging experience. Especially if they had one of their little avatar animations of the Emperor’s concubines making an attempt on his life.

  3. i just downloaded it last night and while i wasn’t particularly blown away, i did still appreciate it quite a bit. over the last year i’ve been recreating historical chinese architecture in different video game engines to find the most details ways to do it with the least strain on the computer. the way they’ve done it for VFC is pretty efficient and while it does lack some serious detail (and lags horribly since it’s not hosted in china and i am) it is a nice reminder of what walking around there really is like.

    my two biggest gripes are that you can’t go everywhere you can in real life and that some parts are exceptionally detailed (e.g. the stone railings/walls on the bridges) while others are severely lacking. i only walked around for about 10 minutes and plan to spend some more time looking around. i do wish i had better camera controls and that it were a little more photorealistic using better textures and bumpmaps, but all in all i think it’s alright. just alright.

    as for using flickr to generate large panoramas, it could work but since the people would be drastically different between each flickr user’s photos it may be hard to get a really good mesh without a lot of human labour. that said, i’m going to go try it out now.

  4. Alan–I mostly agree with your post, but I’d like to take it one step further and challenge the value of supposed value of “real” Forbidden City tours.

    I went once as a tourist in 2004, and several times as a guide to my family when they came to China (2005; 2008). Each time I go, I am less interested, and even the first time I had had enough after about two hours. Thank goodness for a *Starbucks* break halfway through! My best memory is buying artwork from the English speaking art students.

    Of course it is a “must see” but for me the main take-away lesson is–it was big. I hate to be down on Beijing, but for me everything there is just meant to inspire awe in the power and wealth of the Chinese government (imperial and PRC) and make humans feel small and insignificant. The Forbidden City set that tone many centuries ago, and the kilometre long blocks outside the old wall, and now the monumental architecture rising everywhere continue on that theme. Okay, lesson learned, now I want to go somewhere where I feel like a human again!

    You also make a point to say that the VFC has no detail–neither does the “real” one! All the art is stored in a mountain in Taipei, or spread around the world in various public and private collections. The forbidden city is just a large hulking empty structure of brick and stone, a tourist site since the early Republican period. In that respect, I completely agree that reading Barme’s book (or for fun, Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper’s “The Hermit of Peking”) is far superior to any computer simulation, and ultimately it is even more satisfying than sweating (or freezing) one’s way through the real FC.

    If in Beijing for the first time, I highly recommend the walking tour from Tian’anmen, spending no more than 2 hours in the Forbidden City itself, then exploring through the more human White Pagoda Park/Lake complex just to the north (where the royal family spent time to recover from the in-human brick-iness of the FC), and then on to Houhai (which was going downhill fast in spring of 2008) and the few remaining hutongs north of there.

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