Virtual cave shines a light on past

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2012, 12:00am


A soothing tune echoes through a grotto in the dusty Mogao caves of the Gobi desert in Gansu province, the muted colours of an elaborate Buddhist mural popping out of the wall in all its 3-D glory.

'You really feel as if you're standing inside the cave,' said Professor Jeffrey Shaw, dean of the school of creative media at City University.

Shaw was not speaking from the desert caves of Dunhuang in the mainland's north, but from a 3-D stereoscopic re-creation of part of the famous ancient sculptural site in Hong Kong.

The exhibition, put together by the university and the Dunhuang Academy, aims to give researchers and the public an experience similar to visiting the actual Unesco world heritage site, where some of the caves are already sealed off to prevent further environmental degradation due to tourism.

For now, only Cave 220 of the 493 in the network, also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas, has been illustrated and brought to life.

'You go inside that cave and it's completely dark. We are basically trying to recreate the atmosphere of really being in the cave,' Shaw said.

'You have an interactive torch, a virtual torch that you can shine on the walls. This is similar to the real experience.'

The collaborative effort comes amid recent concern that humidity and high levels of carbon dioxide from visitors have damaged some of the Buddhist murals, which over the last century have given historians a glimpse into what life was like on the ancient Silk Road.

Dunhuang was the gateway to China from western Asia and from India between the 2nd century BC and 14th century AD. The caves are often temples dedicated to Buddha, and contain ancient statues, murals and architecture. 'It's like having several hundred Sistine Chapels,' Shaw said, referring to the Vatican church featuring the ornate ceiling painted by Michelangelo.

An added benefit of the recreated cave is that researchers can light up the entire cave and zoom in on an area high in the rafters to examine it in fine detail.

The mobility of the exhibition allows for it to be moved anywhere in the world. And the details can be animated to illustrate historical and cultural facts.

'See those musicians at the bottom corner? If you click on them, you bring up a 3-D animation of the musical instrument and start hearing it play,' Shaw said.

The exhibition will be on show at the Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre in Kowloon Tong from 12pm to 8pm, Mondays to Saturdays, from tomorrow until April 7.

Entry is free, but advance booking is recommended.