by Debbie Hum
Walk among the ancient pillars of Stonehenge at the dawn of the summer solstice. Tour the magnificent Japanese Himeji Castle in the 17th century, or perhaps take in the sights and sounds of the medieval city of Lleida in the 15th. As Communication Stud ies Professor Hal Thwaites puts it, "See it the way it was."
Thwaites, who is the Director of Concordia's 3D Media Technology Centre and the Communication Studies Graduate Diploma Program, spent last fall in Gifu, Japan, helping coordinate the Fourth International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia. The conference, held last November, featured a first-time collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the virtual reconstruction of world heritage sites.
Since 1972, UNESCO has designated 582 cultural and natural properties as world heritage sites that merit preservation.
"Many of the heritage sites, whether they're natural sites, artifacts or entire sections of cities, lend themselves to virtual representation," Thwaites explained. "It's a combination of representing something that still exists, as well as recreating or revisualizing something that doesn't exist any longer."
Many people in universities, companies and research organizations have been looking at "virtualizing" world heritage sites, he added. "Historical virtual tourism" is already available at many sites on the Internet. However, experts are now trying to pull them together into an organized body of information. It's a critical area of development for UNESCO, with the major concerns being credibility, historical accuracy and long-term durability.
Thwaites said the virtual world heritage (VWH) network is still at an embryonic stage. The Virtual Systems and Multimedia conference drew about 400 participants from 29 countries and included a special session on virtual world heritage, supported by UNESCO's World Heritage Centre. About 25 of the international experts at the conference have formed three virtual world heritage working groups, addressing issues such as research protocols, media accuracy and responsibility; the creation of a focal point for VWH access; and documentation and publication of research in this area.
They hope to bring about a virtual world heritage network that centralizes VWH sites without limiting the creativity of site developers, and which is sanctioned by UNESCO. The network would be accessible through the UNESCO Web site or the Web site of the International Society on Virtual Systems and Multimedia in Japan, which organizesthe conference and is another major partner in the endeavour. There is also discussion of a satellite-based network.
Thwaites said the anticipated audience is diverse; some users may expect a high level of architectural or historical accuracy while others might be looking for more general information or an historical virtual tour.
"We think that both of these needs can be accommodated. All the sites on a network can be interlinked and references can be made between them so that people have a much more dynamic source of information to consult than, perhaps, a textbook," Thwaites said.
Thwaites presented two papers at the conference, including a framework for a communication analysis protocol for virtual world heritage creation. The protocol is a means of accurately describing and assessing artificial and/or natural environments, and might provide a common language for people working in VWH. It was first developed by Thwaites' colleague Miraslav Malik in conjunction with Expo '67. Thwaites and Malik began updating the protocol for the November conference in the spring of 1998. Malik, who retired in 1988 but remained active at Concordia, died last August.
Thwaites is continuing to develop the protocol with the VWH working group on research protocols and media accuracy and hopes the work will be completed by the next Virtual Systems and Multimedia conference, in September. The group is considering the creation of a UNESCO Virtual World Heritage database, where people can input information about their sites using a set of descriptors such as the site's contents, its references, recommended audiences and media resources.
"It's not a matter of policing the content on the Internet," Thwaites asserted. "It's a matter of trying to structure the diversity of the information, products and resources that people are creating so that they are useful to researchers, students, archaeologists, scientists, the general public and UNESCO."
Thwaites was invited to serve as publishing chair of the 1998 conference by Professor Takeo Ojika, who recently founded the state-of-the-art Virtual Systems Laboratory at Gifu University. There are 32 undergraduate, masters and doctoral engineering students within the lab.
Professor Thwaites joined Concordia in 1982. He has organized two international 3D media technology conferences in Montreal, in 1989 and 1992.
A number of virtual world heritage sites are currently accessible through www.unesco.org and further information on the VWH network initiative from www.vsmm.org