The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time

Yesterday in Beijing, China’s Palace Museum and IBM jointly announced The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time, the project that I’ve been working on for over a year. Consistent readers of this blog (yes, you three) know that I spend a lot of time in China and so it is a great relief that the cat is officially out of the bag. Not that I’ll be diving into excruciating detail in future posts — gotta save some surprises for the actual launch in 2008, right? — but it should give a bit more context to my musings.

So, what’s the project? Well there’s the official press release and the Palace Museum’s statement (in Chinese). The Chicago Sun-Times decided to take the local angle on the announcement and ran a flattering piece on me and my team. The paper even gave Ascent Stage some love.
But what is Beyond Space and Time? Well, announcements like this at the beginning of a project are always tricky since it is the nature of multi-year, first-of-a-kind efforts to change drastically from vision to implementation. But you have to start somewhere, so here’s the vision.

The heart of Beyond Space and Time is a virtual online replica of the Forbidden City. This is not a set of traditional webpages but rather a fully immersive, spatial, populated world that corresponds architecturally and historically to the vast grounds of the current Palace Museum. And not just pretty building models to ogle at. We call it a Participatory Cultural Environment to stress the importance of a space alive with people — other visitors who you can interact with and, if possible, computer-controlled representations of historic persons. Though 3D representation is widespread in the field of cultural heritage (primarily for preservation), this kind of multi-user, education-focused cultural worlds does not exist.

If you know Second Life, you’re familiar with non-game-based 3D virtual communities. Second Life is an inspiration and even a development sandbox for us (no SLURL, we’re on a private island for now — but we did recently take a SL team portait), but we’re evaluating many platform possibilities. It is sometimes said that people who visit the real Forbidden City leave thinking that they’ve missed the actual Palace Museum. In fact, the buildings and grounds (and of course the artifacts therein) are the Palace Museum; it is not a single building with nice glass cases and wall placards. This is the primary reason that our virtual version is a spatial world rather than a more traditional web front end (however tricked out) for a database of media, as we did with the Hermitage and Eternal Egypt. The museum is a city and the best way to experience a city is by moving through it and interacting with others in it. Call it the sidewalk approach to cultural heritage.

There’s an historical aspect too: that’s the beyond time part. We envision being able to move between a few discrete historical moments in the centuries-long evolution of the city. The environment will morph architecturally and of course the storylines embedded in the world will correspond to the historical moment. System design verges on science fiction here as we move through the implications of a community space that exists on different timelines. For example what happens to the field trip group when some of your classmates decide to peel off for the 16th century?

Of course, a virtual simulacrum of a physical space isn’t much fun if it doesn’t have points of tangency with the real world, now is it? We’re working with our museum partners to identify places inside the Forbidden City where visitors who are physically there can interact with the virtual version of the space. We’re evaluating different location-based services — from projection in the palace halls to mobile device interaction. The idea is to break down the strict distinction between the real world and the virtual world, to let one enhance the other. Challenges like this are one of the many reasons IBM undertakes and funds projects such as Beyond Space and Time.

There’s an aspect to the project that is personally very exciting and not yet reported in the press. Modelling 800 buildings to a level of appropriate detail isn’t something that can realistically be achieved by 2008. We realize this and actually think it is a blessing in disguise. Inspired by the Ancient Spaces project which itself takes a Wikipedia-like approach to collaborative content development, we propose to open the modelling effort to the global community of developers. When exactly this will happen and certainly how it will work is still to be defined, but if you are interested in being part of the distributed virtual construction crew drop me a line at .

In North America I am working with some very talented designers and developers, many of whom have years of experience from earlier museum projects. In China we're working with specialists from IBM's research lab in Beijing as well as a team at the Palace Museum who are as technically-savvy as they are informed about the history and culture inside the Forbidden City walls.

So, then, back to work.

[Note to those of you who read this site's feeds: I've played with a kind of spatial hyperlink that adds some extra information to this post. The content, alas, is not part of the RSS feeds. Drop on by the site if you'd like the extra morsels.]

UPDATE: The virtual world is live and can be found at