Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fighting Crickets and other imperial activities in the virtual Forbidden City


Last week I spent an entire day exploring the virtual Forbidden City that was created as a joint project between IBM and the Palace Museum in Rome. I found the rendered architecture breathtaking and learned a great deal about Chinese history and court life during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

[My avatar dressed as a woman of the Qing dynasty imperial court will help an Imperial Guard with his archery practice]

In addition to the environment itself, there were objects that could be examined like the golden "Dragon Throne" in the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the magnificent bronze guardian lions and xiehi, mythical beasts who understand human language and will impale the evil with their single horn.

I also enjoyed observing scenes of court life like the emperor reviewing petitions (referred to as memorials), eating a 20-course meal with a eunuch taster standing by with a silver spoon, and posing for a portrait that was being rendered by a court artist while the emperor's children played about him.

[Image: Learning to play weiqi from a wise master of the game]

Program developers even included interactive activities like helping an Imperial guardsman practice archery, training and fighting crickets and learning to play weiqi (GO).

The environment could be expanded even further to encompass a wealth of additional history-learning activities. I went up on the accompaying website and posted suggestions for a Chinese cooking module that could be added to the hall where visitors watch the emperor eating a meal. I think it would be fun for visitors to be able to challenge each other to a game of weiqi. I also think it would be interesting to add an application similar to the iPhone's "Brushes" program that would let visitors try their own hand at painting the emperor or scenes or people they see within the virtual palace. A "Brushes" like application could also be used in a caligraphy lesson or writing poetry.

[Image: Imperial Gardens in the virtual Forbidden City]

I also suggested having more animated scenes of other cultural activities like presentations of plays, music recitals or poetry readings or a hall where visitors can go and listen to Chinese philosophers. My editor at Heritage Key asked me if I could suggest a topic for a machinama presentation using the virtual environment and I told him I thought it would be really fascinating for visitors to watch an imperial wedding using the Hall of Supreme Harmony as the backdrop as this is the building where imperial weddings were held during the Ming dynasty.

I would encourage everyone to visit the virtual Forbidden City for yourselves. You will need to download a client that interacts with the server-based virtual environment. The system requirements are 2 Gb of Ram Memory and a Pentium 4 2.4GHz+ or AMD 2400xp+ processor and 2 Gb of free space on your hard drive. It requires a minimum Network Speed of 768 Kbits/sec and is designed for a minimum resolution of 1280x1024, 32-bit True Color. Of course you'll also need a video card capable of 3D.

I actually ran the environment with a workstation with only 1 Gb of Ram and it worked fine. My biggest problem was with my network speed. I live in the country and only have a DSL connection with a maximum of 1.5 Mps. This would appear on the surface to be satisfactory but in reality I must not have been getting the maximum speed as I had problems with my machine freezing for a few seconds while the data was buffered. I read in the troubleshooting guide that there is a way to configure your local client so it only renders surrounding buildings based on your current location but I didn't experiment with that.

I actually wrote a full review of my experience for Heritage Key illustrated with a series of screen shots. If you are particularly interested in Chinese history, I also wrote an article for Heritage Key entitled Conspiring Concubines and Desperate Divas: Women and Power Politics in the Han Dynasty as well.