Immersion: A Critique of Two Projects

On UNESCO’s World Heritage list, Mogao Caves located in Dunhuang in Western China are a valuable resource that tells its story through the narratives found in the murals, architecture, and statues.  For a span of a thousand years, the site at certain times served once as a place of meditation for hermit monks then became an integral part of trade and commerce on the Silk Road and evolved into a larger religious site for Buddhists. To preserve this ephemeral site, the Mogao Caves limits cave access and the amount of visitors.  With these conservation efforts in mind, the City University of Hong Kong’s ALiVE program created Pure Land to explore the caves without traveling to the actual sight.

In a 360 theater, ALiVE creates an immersive virtual reality environment by activating a person’s senses, such as the 3D images with 3D glasses, textural sounds, life-size scale of statues and murals, and a physical controller.  Immersed in projections of the caves and equipped with VR tools, the visitor can feel as if they are at the Mogao Caves.

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Visitors immersed in the digital projection of the Mogao Caves Photo Credit: CNN

In the 1960s, the building Anne Frank once inhabited with her family and acquaintances to hide from the Nazis in WWII was at risk of being demolished.  With conservation efforts, people can visit the building Anne Frank lived in for two years and wrote her world famous diary.  The Anne Frank house in Amsterdam reaches the maximum capacity per day.  The Secret Anne Frank Annex website was made for more people to tour virtually. The website enhances the building with fuller stories like audio narration of Anne Frank’s personal diary and interactive sections to click on. For example, the Anne Frank house is unfurnished and empty but the visitor of the website can see images of the rooms furnished with the personal objects of the people lived there.

This video shows clips of the superimposed photos of the annex furnished:

Through this realistic virtual tour, the website engages the viewer emotionally to make the visit real and believable. The non-linear nature of the tour allows the viewer to become immersed and lose oneself.

The Anne Frank house and Mogao Caves are both ephemeral places with conservation efforts.  VR environments have been created to immerse the viewer to simulate as if at the actual sight. Sutherland, on immersion, states, “If the task of the display is to serve as a looking-glass…it should serve as many senses as possible (p. 225).”  Pure Land utilizes the visitors’ senses to create this “looking glass” of the caves. A realistic tour of the annex creates an emotional engagement with the viewer as he or she encounters personal narratives.

Although both of these virtual realities simulate the “actual place,” there may be something missing.  Pure Land may give a similar experience but the viewer may miss the same feelings of meditation because it is out of context.  Immersion artist Char Davies mentions “bittersweet” feelings of a possible demise of “traditional places” replaced by VR environments (p. 300).  VR offers an alternative for the actual site because it creates a similar experience of being there but the actual site may provoke different feelings and experiences.

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