Cyber Archaeology Project Opens at Geisel Library

The opening of the At-Risk World Heritage and Cyber Archaeology project at Geisel Library Monday morning marked the initiation of the Digital Media Lab’s first virtual reality experience. The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or CAVE kiosk, located in Geisel East, represents the halfway point in a two-year cyber-archaeology program that combines the efforts of UCSD, UCLA, UC Merced and UC Berkeley.  

The kiosk features six 4K resolution television screens, each displaying part of a vivid image showcasing archaeological sites from Greece, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and other at-risk cultural sites. All students and visitors can navigate the dig sites in virtual reality through the use of an Oculus Rift headset and an Xbox controller.

The purpose of the kiosk is to preserve cultural heritage sites that are under high risk due to escalating violence from terrorist groups.

“World heritage refers to the tangible and intangible artifacts and material cultures that relate to humanities,” Dr. Thomas Levy, a professor in the department of anthropology and director of Qualcomm Institute’s Center for Cyber-Archaeology, told the UCSD Guardian. “These are of such importance to telling the story of humanity that we call them world heritage sites.”  

Throughout the course of war, many historical sites become caught in the crossfire, with some of the most recent losses caused by the extremist Islamic State. A destroyed site can never be visited, but it can still be preserved virtually, increasing the site’s reach to people who otherwise would have been unable to visit the location.

Sixth College junior Connor Smith, who worked on developing the software for the virtual reality display, explained that the purpose of the project was to create an interactive experience.

“Our task was to take archaeological data that was captured at these famous sites and visualize it in a meaningful way in virtual reality devices,” Smith said “We made an interactive platform where you can add images, you can add video, you can add sound … and the goal is that archaeologists can put any data they want into our system and we will visualize it in an enjoyable way for the public. You can actually fly around these sites.“  

The display in Geisel Library is one of four planned for construction across the UC campuses: one here, and the other three at UCLA, UC Merced and UC Berkeley.  

Levy noted that there are still several technicalities left to sort out before the project is finished.

“The next step is to ensure that these CAVE kiosks are up and running in all the different UC campuses,” Levy said. “Then, we want to test this idea of using the Pacific Research platform, which is this high-speed fiber optic network that connects all the UC campuses and all the major research institutions in California, and moves big data in real time between the different labs. That’s a huge computer science challenge. If we can make that happen next year and it’s connected to archaeology, then we’re golden.”

Geisel Library is home to several one-of-a-kind displays, and now it contains the first interactive virtual reality experience of its kind. Levy would like those who use the kiosk to gain an understanding of the importance of preservation.

“I hope that when [visitors and students] see this that they will gain an appreciation for the rich diversity of human culture on the planet, and that they’ll see that it’s important to preserve it,” Levy said.

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