JISC 3D Visualisation in the Arts Network
3DVisA Bulletin, Issue 1, September 2006
ISSN 1751-8962 (Print)
ISSN 1751-8970 (Online)
3D RESOURCES: Computer Reconstruction. TEMPLE SITE at PHIMAI, Thailand. A Review by Michael Greenhalgh,
Australian National University,
Canberra, ACT Australia
The days when computing was text-only are long past, and
a combination of computer and network speed, colour, WWW and graphics software has considerably expanded our
views onto the world. For some, the computer monitor is
indeed the window into a different world; one which may
have few connections with that in which we all live. Of
course, those worlds are different for all kinds of reasons,
and the salient point about worlds inside the computer is
that they must somehow be created with software, and are
not necessarily intended to be a simulacrum of our real
world. Indeed, assuming we want and need that computer
world to be 'real', then the software must create the
illusion of reality, some of the features of which include
perception of depth, texture and even atmosphere.
What might a visitor expect to learn from a site such as Phimai?
In basic information, perhaps details of the UNESCO
submission for listing, something about the
Historical Park, and links to the many other Khmer monuments
available across the web. Remote sensing has proved very
useful in the area, with an interesting
report to UNESCO (PDF format) by Surat Lertlim, and perhaps information
management in Asia, and comparative data from
- the Greater Angkor Project.
Description of the Website
Completed in 2001, the website is the work of Richard M. Levy, Associate Professor of
Planning and Urban Design, and Director of Computing in the
Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary.
It is divided into a suite of HTML pages designed by Peng
Peng: an Introduction gives a summary, and a project description;
The Site gives access to
photographs of various kinds, to a QuickTime movie, and to a plan of the
Phimai site; it is spoiled by a line of seven thumbnail locations
five of which change, two of which do not, and none of which is
clickable and hence enlargeable.
The Computer Model
offers animation sequences, a QuickTime Movie, and access to
a series of enlargeable thumbnails on
Constructing the Model.
There are also contact details, awards and exhibitions details.
Quality and Extent of the Content
The quality of the site design is fine, but the range of the
content (see above) could be expanded. So also could the size
of the images: all of three
and the twelve air photos are only 450 pixels wide. Some of the 'air photos' are in fact reconstructions,
which is (probably unintentionally) deceptive. Any site dealing
with both photographs and models should keep very clear boundaries
between the two.
The Photo Gallery offers
sixteen images, again all too small, but at least keyed via a red dot to their
location on the adjacent site plan; but the plan is dead; you cannot click
on a section of it and bring up the relevant image. Initially the heart leaps
as the siteplan on the first page is indeed clickable, but all this
does is bring up a larger version. ALL plans are in Thai script, which
might be a bit of a steep learning curve for some of us. A difficult job in
PhotoShop, scrubbing one script and labelling it in English...
As we have now come to expect, the
Computer Model again offers small images only. There is no zooming,
so it is impossible to get in close enough to see the detail if any. All
the images are 'dead' - the user has no control over detail - and can only
move from one image to the next.
The Purposes of the Model
offers a somewhat politically correct explanation for the model: 'Reconstruction of the
temple site in Phimai serves as a case study highlighting the potential
of computer visualization as a tool in heritage resource management.
Besides offering archaeologists, historians and museum curators a
non-evasive [invasive? MG] environment for testing reconstruction scenarios, virtual
worlds offer the public access to important historic monuments without
the wear of excessive visitation'. This provokes several questions:
Just what is the potential of computer visualisation?
Why hymn computer models as a way of avoiding 'the wear of
excessive visitation' when the next paragraph but one states
that 'The author built the model to include in an educational
video and website in order to promote the site for tourism'?
The two statements are contradictory.
The notion of 'testing reconstruction scenarios' is misleading
for monuments such as Phimai, where the setup is so structured and
well known from many comparanda that the reconstruction is never in doubt.
Such 'reconstruction scenarios' are indeed a use for such models,
because they necessarily operate where the archaeologists have
little idea of detail, and just want to block things out - which is
conveniently just what such models are good at (but nothing much
beyond such basics!). If virtual worlds can indeed 'offer the public access to important
historic monuments', then surely setups such as this should be much richer
A final comment on the aims might be that the Freudian slip of evasive is that this is exactly
what such models do: they evade the twin requirements of any scholarly
work, which are detail and accuracy.
The Quality of the Model
The models provided are as good as the technology allows.
Constructing the Model
is the most interesting page, in that it demonstrates clearly
the problems inherent in the technology - namely the simplification
of forms and of textures, the repetition of both, and the
overall unworldly look-and-feel (best seen in the comparison
between the computer interior view and the photograph). The
difficulties should not surprise us, since the process involves
stripping down the real world to its computer-understandable
components, and then rebuilding it in the machine, which is
far from simple, and tedious, time-consuming and expensive to
do to any level of accuracy. But to
repeat, any shortcomings are not Professor Levy's fault, but
endemic to such modelling. This might explain why the computer
models on these (and plenty of other) pages are shown
at such low resolution: seen in close-up the reconstructions
would reveal themselves even more clearly to be lacking in both
detail and accuracy.
Will Computer Modelling get Better?
The problems inherent in the technology seem incapable of
solution. VRML and its descendants have been around for several
years now, but have never lived up to the hype which is endemic
to computing. The killer question is to ask what a computer model of any
such site as Phimai can yield to the student/researcher than a good
collection of photographs cannot? The answer must surely
be 'very little', since the models are extrapolated
from photographs, in the first place, gaily cutting corners
(I know, I've done it) along the way. Even when money can be
thrown at laser measuring and a huge turntable (as with the
Michelangelo Project), the result is no doubt one of micro-accuracy
contour-wise, but with a surface as dead as old putty - the textures
are still any enormous problem. And in any case, Phimai has insides
as well as outsides, and lasering it for computer modelling would
be for rich people with time on their hands.
I live in hope that all the doubts about the technology expressed
above are now ill-founded. All any protester has to do is to
email me with details of any reasonably complicated
inside-and-outside model (no more Renaissance statues, thank you, far too simple), and I shall eat this HTML file and re-embark on
building accurate and detailed computer models which may
fearlessly be shown in a web browser at high resolution. Until I
get that email, I shall stick to photographs, panoramas,
zooming devices and the rest - and in large enough quantities to
give some satisfaction to researchers.
© 3DVisA and Michael Greenhalgh, 2006.
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