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Virtual technology resurrects ancient sites

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Staff Writer

Mixing virtual reality from the past with present-day reality may sound confusing but it’s actually a simple concept.

If replicas are digitally projected at historical sites where famous buildings or structures once stood before disappearing years ago, that’s a mix of virtual reality from the past and the current world.

This is one way to use mixed-reality technology, which combines virtual reality with reality. Tokyo-based AsukaLab Inc. is using it to digitally reconstruct ruins and provide more realistic and interactive tours in a bid to stimulate tourism at historic sites.

“This technology enables people to see what’s not there. It’s kind of close to time travel,” said AsukaLab CEO Tetsuya Kakuta.

Ranging from the ruins around Asuka, Nara Prefecture, the heart of culture during the Asuka Period (592-710), to the long-vanished donjon of Edo Castle in modern-day Tokyo, the firm has been providing mixed-reality business solutions to a travel agency and municipalities.

AsukaLab’s digital works are not merely computer images. They can make people feel as though they are part of those scenes by using the latest gadgets, including tablets and headgear.

AsukaLab and Tokyo-based travel agency Kinki Nippon Tourist Co. said mixed-reality tours have the potential to expand the tourism market and bring more people to rural areas that have rich historic sites where historic structures no longer stand.

“Many rural areas, including the village of Asuka, have ruins and historic sites, which are attractive content for tourists . . . they are like buried attractions,” because the main structures are gone, said Kakuta, who studied mixed-reality at the University of Tokyo.

The firm traces its origins to a University of Tokyo lab where Kakuta and other researchers have been attempting to digitally reconstruct the historic Asuka ruins. The firm was established in 2008 with the aim of providing virtual reality tours of those ruins.

Some may wonder how mixed reality differs from other ways of showing images from the past, such as photographs or dioramas.

One big difference is the realistic feeling people get from participating in mixed reality.

For instance, AsukaLab has teamed up with Kinki Nippon Tourist to provide virtual 3-D tours of Edo Castle and Nihonbashi Bridge.

One of the highlights of the tours is an image of Edo Castle’s keep, which was destroyed by fire more than 300 years ago. Tourists are asked to don electronic glasses at a certain spot near the Imperial Palace where the donjon once stood to view it via mixed reality.

The glasses show not only the keep, but also other parts of the structure as tourists “take a look around.”

So if they look up, for example, they will see the roof of the main hall, digitally reconstructed in detail.

“If they projected just fixed images like on TV, wearing the glasses would be pointless,” Kakuta said.

“By using sensors to track head movements, people get the experience of being in the image and looking around it.”

Among other sites, AsukaLab has developed mixed-reality content for the main tower of Sunpu Castle in Shizuoka Prefecture, and Sannai Maruyama, a Jomon Period archaeological site in Aomori Prefecture.

“This project originally started at the university, so we hope this will somehow connect to public services, such as increasing domestic and foreign tourists to various regions,” he said.

Munehide Yasuoka, general manager of future business marketing and strategy at Kinki Nippon Tourist, said the company came up with the idea for the mixed-reality Edo Castle and Nihonbashi Bridge tours as a way to differentiate itself from the competition.

Reservations for the tours, which started last month and end this month, are already full, he said.

Customers’ reactions have been mixed so far.

“Some customers said it was interesting, but others said the experience wasn’t as good as they expected,” Yasuoka said, adding that TV coverage of the tours may have raised expectations too high.

One constraint is the glasses’ narrow 23-degree viewing angle, which may have dampened the feeling of realism.

But Yasuoka believes mixed-reality tours still have the potential to energize the tourism industry.

“We hope to create a buzz with the Edo Castle tour and want people to see this as content that could help rural municipalities seeking to boost their economies and tourism,” he said.

Although the virtual tours of Edo Castle and Nihonbashi end this month, Yasuoka said Kinki Nippon Tourist plans to offer other virtual tours in the future.

In the meantime, he said, there are other challenges to overcome, including the millions of yen it costs to create digital content from scratch, which is likely to discourage cash-strapped municipalities from investing in the high-tech tours.

Back at AsukaLab, Kakuta also acknowledged there were hurdles hampering the spread of mixed-reality technology but said the company is looking to promote its use for other purposes.

For instance, the firm created virtual images of Tokyo’s concept for the new Olympic stadium and provided them to the International Olympic Committee when it came to Japan to hear Tokyo’s pitch for the 2020 Games.

This method can likewise be used in the real estate and construction businesses by enabling dealers to show virtual images of new houses or buildings to potential customers, Kakuta said.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years.