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A new form of cultural preservation: How one New Zealander is using VR to transport people to the tombs of Egypt

For those not well versed in Egyptian history, Nefertari was an ancient Egyptian queen – as well as Pharaoh Ramesses II’s first wife – who died around 1255 BCE. Her tomb resides in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens and is covered in portraiture wall paintings paying tribute to her life, her religion and her culture. The tomb was first discovered thousands of years later in 1904, and has a long history of being opened and closed to the public due to fears surrounding the preservation of these paintings.

Scientists have found salt formation, bacterial growth, water damage and the humidity of visitors’ breath to be damaging to many of the paintings, so when a major restoration of the works was completed in 1992, Egyptian authorities decided to restrict access to the tomb to preserve the paintings.

The tomb was reopened and then restricted to visitors once again in 2006, except for private tours for a maximum of 20 people for a hefty price. As of 2017, the tomb is once again open to the public – but the fears around the preservation of the works remain.

Developer Experius VR and Simon Che de Boer of New Zealand-based VR cinematography company Realityvirtual have joined forces to digitally scan the building using state-of-the-art technology with millimetre accuracy, so anyone in the world can experience what it’s like to set foot inside the tomb and see its art, construction, mythology and history.

It also ensures that the experience is available for years to come if the tomb once again closes to the public in the future, Che de Boer says.

“I think Nefertari is a beautiful project, one that truly shines a light on the use-case for digital cultural preservation,” he says. “We gained two things from this endeavour. One, we have an accurate data-set of a priceless heritage site. Secondly, we are able to protect this site from degradation as ‘virtual tours’ are now able to take place if the site gets closed to the public.”

To capture such realistic images of the Egyptian building, Che de Boer uses a technique called photogrammetry, which Che de Boer says is a “dark art” that involves taking a lot of photographs, having the computer analyse the photos and extract similar features and then create a 3D cloud-based model.

“We at Realityvirtual have utilised this tech and put it on steroids,” he says. “We have derived de-lighting techniques, deep learning techniques for super-enhancement and much more. Our experiences are a magnitude higher in detail than that of the nearest competition due to our clever data-management and memory management methodologies.”

This process also involved some trade secrets and IP that Che de Boer says Realityvirtual’s competitors are yet to crack.

“We are aware that other parties will catch up, nonetheless, we will continue to innovate.”

Documenting Nefertari took Che de Boer 36 hours of traveling and transit from New Zealand to Egypt and about six to eight hours to photograph.

Approximately 6.4 billion points of colour were documented, while a filter was used to avoid damaging the ancient works.

“It is vital that while we travel to these locations, we try our best to minimise any damage endured via our presence,” he says. “Infrared and Ultraviolet light is not preferred in these environments, as it’s essentially exposing such artifacts to sunlight. I’ve read what little research papers exist on the subject. The flash photography is only for a few milliseconds per shot and the evidence suggests minimal, to no degradation. Nonetheless, better to be safe than sorry. Hence we filter our light of these harmful by-products.”

The result is an educational simulation that’s available on gaming platform STEAM for free, but requires a Vive, Rift or Windows VR headset.

Most of the reviews on the site are in awe of the realism of the experience, with one of the highest rated reviews saying: “It looks absolutely amazing, really good graphics. It almost feels like you are there. I can just imagine a few more years down the line where you won’t be able to visually tell the difference. This is another step towards that realization.”

Che de Boer says feedback about the VR experience from people has been incredible.

“It’s the 11th most popular game on STEAM and it’s an educational simulation,” he says. “We only released it a week ago – who has ever heard of an educational app being in pretty much the top 10 of gaming experiences?”

And as for those who say there’s already lots of photos and videos available of cultural sites such as Nerfertari’s tomb out there, Che de Boer says the difference with  Nefertari: Journey to Eternity is experiencing it in VR is like experiencing it in person.

“The presence we are offering is as close as technically possible to an approximation of being there,” he says. “We are in the business of ‘slice of life’ experiences. We are encapsulating the essence of reality. The freedom offered while being immersed is paramount. We can also argue that this experience in many ways is better than it is in person as you have all the time in the world to wonder, we have removed all the modern day additions such as the wooden floor, no smoking signs and halogen lighting.”

Projects such as Nefertari’s tomb could be the future of cultural education, he says.

“I could only imagine how cool this would have been when I was doing social studies or geography class. The ability to tell a narrative about historical events is massive and a real driving force for us.”

As for what’s next on Realityvirtual’s horizon, Che de Boer says there are a number of projects he’s worked on that are yet to come out of South Africa, Italy, Australia and Egypt. The company is also pushing ahead with its deep learning technology that allows it to resurrect locations that were lost to history, war or climate change in the past.

“This truly excites me. We also may consider floating an ICO and/or investment to scale up operations, as long as they abide to our ethos,” he says.

“The future is bright. And extremely detailed.”

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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