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

23 Responses to “The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time”

  1. Bryce says :

    John – fantastic summary of what you’ve been up to. (And I like the sidenotes, too.) And I can’t believe that most people ask ‘why does IBM do this?’ I would’ve guessed most would ask ‘Can I come work for you?’

  2. andyp says :

    John – great news! The parts I’ve seen of the build look interesting. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

  3. Bryce says :

    I’m curious — you say you’ve considered whether or not to include the Emperor as a playable avatar.Have you toyed with the notion of class-level ‘constraints’ on playability? So, allowing visitors to not only move back and forward through time, but also to inhabit different social castes with the attendant limitations, or freedoms, imposed by that social station?

  4. John says :

    Good question and you’re right, constraints are key. If we allow role-playing of historical figures (and this is by no means certain) the good news is that the complex set of imperial court protocols and rules gives us a perfect template for constraining role-players. You (playing a courtier) want to run up and slap the Emperor? Go right ahead. Shortly thereafter, you will be unceremoniously executed. That’ll teach you the rules of court life.
    Who knows if we’ll get to this point — or if it is even useful as a learning tool — but it is fun to think about.

  5. Saki says :

    Hi, John 🙂
    thanx for your comment, I saw the article on TechWeb and didn’t know about you. Can I use the ideogram stamp on this post to link to your site?

  6. Joe in Beijing says :

    What a fascinating project! I look forward to see it.

  7. Noel says :

    where and when can i view/download this program?

  8. Bob in Denver says :

    Noel posted a great question. Where can I download this program to see the virtual Forbidden City? Isn’t it supposed to be available in the Spring of 2008, if it is on schedule?
    Just seen a program about it on the History Channel (9/21/08), but provided no clue where to get it.

  9. Barbara says :

    I also saw this program on the History Channel and I looked closely at the end for any hint of where to download this. It was frustrating to watch the program, get really into it and then not know where to find it! Help!

  10. Angela says :

    OK, I DVR’d the end of the show, went for a run and couldn’t wait to play back the show to get the website address…well, I’m sure you know what happened…NO WEBSITE ADDRESS!
    Great, great project! Eagerly awaiting more info.
    Left Hanging

  11. ArthurT says :

    Ok. I looked VERY carefully at the screen shots of the Virtual Forbidden City. Both Macintosh and IBM laptops were running some old piece of software called VIRTUS-VR, ( Virtus-VR is 18 years old ). but it looked a lot more improved since I last saw it. Also spotted photoshop, and a QuickTime VR panorama. It looked like a lot of old software, but I wonder how it performs on new hardware?
    ( p.s. you misspelled suprised…surprised )

  12. Wendy says :

    I also DVR’d this peogram and wachted it on Monday and could find nothing about any info as to where to find it on the internet.
    Just Wondering

  13. John says :

    Hi all, just a note that the Beyond Space and Time project will be publicly available on Oct. 10 at See you in-world!

  14. MARGO says :


  15. chris says :

    can’t wait 2 c this done

  16. bj says :

    i watched the program and found it very interesting. i can hardly wait to see this program in action. thank you for making the world availabe to see.

  17. Nora says :

    Same here.We watched the History Channel’s program and it’s fascinating! Can’t wait to see the actual program. Thank you for bringing this to the people.

  18. Leslie says :

    I can’t wait until this website is open and running. I am a second grade teacher who is using the Core Knowledge social studies curriculum and one unit that I have to teach this year is China. I think this will be a fabulous website to get kids really excited about learning about ancient China. I am so excited to teach this unit now!!!

  19. Mike says :

    I saw the program on the History channel today and look forward to going virtually to the Forbidden City and interacting with the characters soon!

  20. Donna Nelson says :

    I was strolling through the channels spyed China any thing about the subjest. After seeing the show I want to see the whole thing will be looking forward to it.

  21. John says :

    For those asking about the project URL.
    The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time launches on 10/10 at See you in the Virtual Forbidden City!

  22. Mike says :

    That is pretty interesting. At least we can be sure that there is increasing interest in the virtual world space. The file is massive though.
    Talking about virtually visiting places of interest, is way better.

  23. ann says :

    I wish you included royal figures from the Ming Dynasty, who were the founders of the Forbidden City. The clothing and the arts was more aesthetic than the typical Manchurian that is commonly mistaken as traditional Chinese.
    Here are some good references:
    Founding emperor of Ming Dynasty

    ming dynasty 1566

    ming dynasty 1

    ming dynasty 2