The Virtual Angkor project is a virtual rendering of the ancient Khmer city of Ankor created by Monash University’s SensiLab collaborating with archaeologists, historians and virtual history specialists from around the globe. Intended to be an educational tool for history classes, Virtual Angkor allows students to take an intimate look into what life would have been like in 1300s Angkor. They can walk through the enormous Buddhist temple of Angkor Wat, see the trade hub of a South Asian empire or see denizens from every social class all without leaving their seat. This impressive virtual world was created through analysis of LiDAR surveys of the ancient city, geospatial data of the area, digital elevation files and GIS mapping layers collected by archaeologists in the area. This data, which unfortunately is not easily available to the public, was then used to recreate the city in the Unity game engine.
However, a city is just a city, where did its citizens come from? Well in this case the people didn’t come first, the elephants did! In fact, the elephants were the first thing modeled for Virtual Angkor, then humans from different backgrounds and historically accurate statuaries or status symbols scanned in from museums around the world. A unique part of Virtual Angkor is that it isn’t just a stationary picture – the models follow path finding algorithms to traverse across the city with different goals based on their social status. The code behind this project is not open source, however as it is intended for educational purposes it is free to access for anyone (that is if you can afford a VR headset). Additionally, they include potential lesson plans to go along with the virtual experience with questions that can be answered partially by experiencing the city in first person. Virtual Angkor also presents an interactive map of a bird’s eye view of the city so a user can see the overall layout and interact with pieces that catch their eye. You can even move your head close to a location to hear the sounds that may have been common in the Khmer empire, even some recreated ancient musical instruments. The site doesn’t really present an argument for anything (besides “this is how Angkor probably looked”), but the existence of the Virtual Angkor project brings up some interesting future applications of this technology. What other historical sites have been well documented enough for a virtual recreation? And how can we reduce the barrier to experiencing technology like this?