Modern virtual reality (VR) technologies use computer screens to reproduce absent objects before our eyes. VR has been making its way into our day-to-day lives for some time now. As the high-speed 5G networks around us continue to expand, VR technologies are expected to become increasingly commonplace. Expensive high-functionality devices are becoming more affordable, and specialized software applications are getting easier to use.

Recent unfortunate events have highlighted the potential for technologies that measure and record 3-dimentional spaces to reproduce them in virtual form. The tragic fire at Paris’s renowned Notre-Dame Cathedral in April 2019 made the world aware of the laser-measured 3D models and panoramic images of the cathedral left behind by tech-savvy art historian Andrew Tallon, who had died just the previous year. These data paved the way to restoring the cathedral and gave people hope. (For information about Tallon’s laser-based models, see the article “Historian uses lasers to unlock mysteries of Gothic cathedrals” on the National Geographic website.) And, when main structures of Shurijo Castle in Okinawa were destroyed in a fire in October 2019, fans of the castle launched the attention-getting “Shurijo Castle Digital Restoration Project” the following month. The project aims to create an electronic reproduction of Shurijo Castle, using software that virtually recreates objects by extracting data points from numerous photographs and videos taken from different angles and locations. Because the project requires large amounts of data, participants are asked to submit their photos and videos of Shurijo Castle through the project’s website. These calamities underscore the potential value of gathering data and creating 3D virtual representations of culturally important buildings.

There’s a growing public interest in how 3D representations of buildings like these can be used in a variety of ways. To explore the possibilities and limitations of using these new technologies in historical studies, the Information Resources Center (IRC) at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies’ Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa established the Qalawun VR Project in 2019. This project will explore the use of virtual reality technologies as a new way to capture, store, and utilize spatial information, and create original VR content to better understand the problems and the potentials of using this technology for historical research.

With these broader goals in mind, this project has two specific tasks:

  1. Experiment with commercially available cameras and related equipment for full-sphere photography, and report findings about the methods and their limitations.
  2. Create a VR “tour” based on the acquired 3D data, and investigate ways that data could be used in research and education.

We decided to conduct the above-mentioned experiments at the Qalawun complex in Cairo. The complex, built through a mortmain waqf endowment by Sultan Qalawun (reigned 1279–90) of the Mamluk dynasty (1250–1517), consists of a hospital, a madrasa, and his mausoleum. There are several reasons for choosing the Qalawun complex from among the many other historic buildings in Cairo and elsewhere. First, the complex includes a hospital. When the hospital was established, it was a leading medical center in Egypt and Syria, providing cutting-edge medical treatments and instruction. The hospital has continued functioning in some capacity up to the present day. An ophthalmology clinic there currently accepts patients. It’s also historically significant for its architectural style and ornamentation, which include elements from the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman traditions. It combines these with architectural styles from medieval Europe. Thus, we were certain the Qalawun complex would provide insights about both culture and society in the medieval Islamic period.

Ultimately, this project aims to create a computer-based tour that allows users to freely explore the virtual complex with VR headsets. We will also investigate how this content might be of use in education and academic research. Achieving this goal will require a network of collaborators bridging the humanities and information science. The Middle East and Islam historians on this project have no particular background in virtual reality technologies. This project is an attempt to see how much non-experts can achieve before it becomes necessary, as is anticipated, to prevail upon the wisdom of those better versed in VR technologies.

Achievements in 2019

Among our achievements in 2019, we posted an overview of the project and descriptions of the Qalawun charitable endowment complex with a virtual reality tour. The descriptions include a historical overview of the complex’s construction and renovations, as well as maps of the complex’s layout and facilities. Team member Ryosuke Kubo, who studies Medieval Islamic society with a focus on the socio-economic history of waqf charitable endowments, was tasked with writing the descriptions for each facility. The virtual tour section of the web site allows users to explore exteriors and interiors of the complex, including the hospital, madrasa, and mausoleum. Clickable “more information” marks throughout the virtual environment provide additional images and explanations about points of interest. The explanatory comments were prepared by team member Naoko Fukami, a specialist in Islamic Architectural History. In some cases, the clickable “more information” marks display old photographs and illustrations, showing the complex from other perspectives. Being able to read about the details while moving through these virtual spaces should allow the user to get a fuller and more enjoyable experience, and a deeper appreciation for Islamic architecture.

Achievements in 2020

Unable to travel abroad in 2020 due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we focused on enhancing the existing web site content. When creating content, we assumed it would be read by high school or university students, and thought about how to provide useful teaching materials for university classes. We decided to create a site glossary, where users can look up history and architecture terms used in the VR tour explanations. Team members Takenori Yoshimura and Naoko Fukami respectively oversaw the historical and architectural terms in the glossary, for a total of 147 words. Next, we decided to include “further explanation” commentary articles that provide additional context to the information presented in the VR tour. We asked 12 experts to write a total of 28 commentary articles on topics including history, architecture, religion, and culture. These commentary articles are an option for users seeking additional background information. At the same time, teaching materials need to be intuitive and enjoyable. Thus, we asked illustrator Manaru Tenkawa to create illustrations that communicate the gist of the information. Abstracting and simplifying expert knowledge was a bold effort. But, Tenkawa’s outstanding artistic sensibilities allowed us to present this complex information as introductory-level content. In addition to the new content, we created a project web site and an English version of the VR tour. With this, we hope to open this project up to non-Japanese users.

Although this project is in its second year, a number of outstanding issues remain for the VR tour created in 2019. In the future, we intend to address these remaining VR tour issues, and apply those findings to create more realistic VR tours. We also plan to further upgrade the site content.

Spring 2021
The Qalawun VR Project
Wakako Kumakura

The contents of this web site are a product of two research projects:
(1) the 2019-2020 TUFS ILCAA IRC project “Basic Research on the Use of Virtual Reality Technologies to Document and Publish Visual Materials”
(2) the 2020-2023 TUFS ILCAA joint research project “The Visualization of the History and Historical Space of the Middle East: Sharing Knowledge in the Digital Age”

* The TUFS ILCAA Field Science Center has kindly loaned equipment to make this project possible.

* The creation of this content was supported by the TUFS ILCAA Middle East & Islam core research project “Political, Social and Cultural Polarization and Its Backgrounds in the Middle East and the Muslim World”.

English translation: Jeff Gedert