Forbidden City goes virtual with IBM

IBM and Beijing's Palace Museum have launched a virtual tour of the Forbidden City.

The world's largest palace complex Friday unveiled an addition -- a virtual one.

Working together with IBM, the Palace Museum -- better known as Beijing's Forbidden City, the palace and home of China's emperors for 500 years -- launched Beyond Space and Time, a virtual tour that allows the visitor to explore the grounds as one of nine characters.

The project had several purposes, mainly to allow people who cannot visit Beijing to experience the Forbidden City, and for those who have visited the physical premises to learn more about it, said Hu Chui, director of the Palace Museum's information department.

Visitors can tour the Forbidden City complex and the comings and goings of six different Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperors, along with learning fun skills like archery.

IBM and the Palace Museum chose to build the model on a game platform -- Garage Games' Torque -- in order to demonstrate effectively the large spaces that are a hallmark of the Forbidden City, said John Tolva, IBM's program manager for Beyond Space and Time. The total outlay for the project was over US$3 million, mostly coming from IBM in the form of technology, staff and expertise.

Big Blue built the project using Websphere and Websphere Message Broker. It resides on dynamically-provisioned servers on the US west coast, and is cached at other sites around the world, with more than 40 instances of the world available simultaneously. Areas of the site that provide information or dialogue boxes to interact with characters within the model, such as to learn cricket fighting, are done using frameless Mozilla, Tolva said.

In order to use the full functionality of the program, the user must first download an application, available for free in simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese or English, and for Windows XP/Vista, Mac OS X, and Linux. Multiple attempts by IDG News Service to download the Windows XP/Vista version (note: executable file) of the application failed.

Characters can tour the grounds as a variety of court officials, but the emperor is not one of the characters a user can assume. Tolva said that by limiting the roles that users can play, it maintains a sense of "decorum." "If you play as the emperor, that affects the experience for everyone else in that world," he said. He added that for the same reason, there is no running or flying, in order to retain a realistic experience of the site.

Hu expressed satisfaction with the project overall, but pointed out that it emphasizes an overall experience of the palace, and therefore isn't technically accurate in every instance. For example, when one character walked directly up one of the palace's nine-dragon staircases, he said, "See? You could never do that. If you did that then, they'd cut your head off!"

Following the overthrow of the imperial system in 1911, China's last emperor, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi, remained in the Forbidden City until 1924, when he was forced out. The palace then became property of the state and was converted into a museum, opening 83 years ago Friday, in 1925. It is now one of the world's most visited museums.

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Steven Schwankert

IDG News Service
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