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Roman Forum Virtually Recreated in California - 2003-01-31

Students and researchers can stroll through the Roman Forum for the first time in 1,500 years, thanks to computer technology. Historians and architects have created a virtual tour of an archeological site that lies in ruins.

It is a sunny winter day on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. But in the university's "visualization portal," it is 10:00 a.m. on June 21, 400 AD, just decades before the collapse of the Roman Empire.

An image is projected on a semi-circular screen, using three projectors coordinated by a supercomputer.

Visitors appear to be moving through the center of classical Rome as they enter the complex of buildings called the Forum. Bernard Frischer, a classics professor, helps viewers orient themselves to their surroundings. "The Roman Forum, the city center, the heart of the city and the place where so many of the main institutions had their headquarters," he said.

There is the Roman Senate building, the temple of Castor and Pollux, and of Saturn and Vesta, and the triumphal arch of General Septimius Severus. There is also the residence the pontifex maximus, the high priest of Roman religion, where Julius Caesar once lived when he held that position.

The visualization project is the result of collaboration among architects, historians and computer specialists. It uses flight simulation technology developed for the U.S. military.

Dean Abernathy headed the technical team that created the reconstruction. He says that although parts of the Forum survive, much of this virtual Forum is based on research, and some on conjecture. "We use text descriptions, which of course are very unreliable but they can give you a general idea as to what was going on," he explained. "But there are also depictions on coins, and then also reliefs on buildings themselves."

Relief carvings gave information on the design of the Basilica Julia, a complicated structure built by Julius Caesar. It once housed a law court and was used for public events.

Professor Diane Favro of the Department of Architecture says the reconstructed Forum offers insights to her students. Three dimensional modeling shows that older reconstructions were sometimes inaccurate, and offers a better understanding of these buildings. "I think for me the most energizing part of it is that we can move through these buildings in real time," she said. "And I think architecture is not just about seeing a style and seeing a building in a two dimensional photo, but understanding that moving through buildings is essential for good design, whether it's in the ancient world or the modern world."

Technology expert Paul Hoffman says the visualization portal has been used to map such modern sites as the UCLA campus and downtown Los Angeles. With Professor Bernard Frischer, these scholars and technicians are developing a program to tour the Forum on home computers. "Right now, we can have Bernie [Frischer] set a path of historical significance through this kind of a model," he said. "And then we can create a movie that can be played back. Right now, we're able to do that and people are playing these things back on a high speed laptop."

Within a few years, computer programs will offer tours of much of ancient Rome, giving viewers the freedom to select their own routes and explore buildings. Such programs will later be available over the Internet.

Professor Frischer says his team has fulfilled a centuries old dream of reconstructing the Roman Forum, although the reconstruction is virtual, not real. "The significance is that this is the biggest such cultural heritage 3D computer model, I think, ever made," he said. "It's hard to know exactly that's going on minute-to-minute around the world, but as far as we know, it's the biggest. And it's a kind of a pilot for what can be done in terms of doing all of Rome itself someday, but also the other great centers of our cultural heritage, from Kyoto, the Forbidden City, on over to Machu Picchu [in Peru], Jerusalem, and so on."

The classics professor says he hopes to work with scholars around the world to build a worldwide cultural heritage "time machine."