Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Bagan by goggles

A virtual reality company offers a tour of Bagan’s pagoda without leaving Yangon.

A visit to Myanmar can be filled with dilemmas: Should one try to explore all the corners of Yangon or cover as many cities as possible? Is it preferable to visit Myanmar’s purpose-built capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, or dive into Bagan’s historical sites? The correct answer: do it all. But for those who cannot, technology might be an expedient.

One Myanmar VR company called ‘3XVI VR Virtual Reality Production’ is offering to marry technology and cultural heritage, offering tours of Bagan without leaving the comfort of your living room.

Nyi Lynn Seck, the company’s founder explains that the conservation of the heritage is what motivated the project in the first place. “We were worried that there will be another natural disaster in Bagan, so we recorded the Bagan pagodas with VR technology,” he says.

In the light of the 1975 earthquake that registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, more than 30 pagodas – including Ananda, That Byin Nyu, Pyathagyi and Buu Payar – sustained serious damage.

The magnitude 6.8 earthquake that struck on August 24 last year, resulted in the damage of nearly 400 pagodas in Bagan. Mural paintings in 152 pagodas in Bagan were damaged by the earthquake and 52 pagodas suffered the worst damage according to U Kyi Lin, staff officer of archaeology department in Bagan.

If “something” happens to the remaining structures, he explained, the 3D models he has stored on his program will allow him to build almost identical replicas.

Down – touching a Buddha in Bagan…from Yangon. Thiri Lu/The Myanmar TimesDown – touching a Buddha in Bagan…from Yangon. Thiri Lu/The Myanmar Times

“360-degree VR is a great way to record the frescos of Bagan’s pagodas. [It is] much better than what we can now do with photos and videos,” says architect Okkar Thein.

The project is getting growing larger – spots in Mandalay, the ancient Kings city, are also been scanned.

The Pyitsawaddy Pagoda in Bagan can already be virtually visited – which took a whole day to scan it. Weekend gave it a try, and so can anyone else.

With the VR goggles on, we started exploring the pagoda. We touched a few Buddha statuettes thanks to sensors placed in our hands. One of virtual reality’s many perks: touching sacred stuff. We looked at the frescos on the wall, which were a dead-ringer for the real thing but I wasn’t sure if they were good enough for architects or archaeologists to study.

However, there was not a sound. Monasteries are usually silent places, but a little soundtrack in the background would improve the experience.

Despite the strides made with VR, the technology isn’t perfect – at some point I found myself clipping and going through walls.

“This is the very latest technology [but] we cannot get the best [updates] in some technical areas like resolution,” he said.

Cyber accessibility

VR tech will not only be a gadget for tech-savvy youngsters, it could also be a boon for people who are not physically able to travel. Old people and persons with disabilities might benefit from it.

“We cannot tour the inner or narrower parts of some pagodas in Bagan,” says Daw Than Nwe Aung who is in a wheelchair, and hasn’t tried VR yet. “It is good for us if we have a chance to.”

Whether everyone will be able to enjoy the technology will very much depend on its cost. For now, the price of a VR machine for 3D interactive movements is too high for mass consumption – a pair of goggles plus the necessary equipment costs at least K1000,000. One also needs to have a room large enough or at least 10 or 12 square feet room.

Besides, Myanmar companies are not fully equipped yet. “Our current machines cannot scan the height of the Shwedagon pagoda and get a perfect 3D model. Scanning the Shwedagon would cost US$200 million,” says Nyi Lynn Seck. “[And] it would take us 10 days.”

‘3XVI VR Virtual Reality Production’, which can be assumed as Myanmar’s first VR commercial, offers services like 3D interactive spaces, where users are able to interact with other beings as well as manipulate objects within virtual reality – travel tourism, visiting heritage sites and real estate, without actually being there.

Nyi Lynn Seck explains that VR technology can be utilised in many fields – training firefighters, climbing Mount Everest, visiting Pyongyang safely or becoming a hero in one’s favorite video games.

In the near future, he plans to create VR Museums and virtual galleries by scanning artworks. “The art exhibition held in Yangon cannot be watched by a person who is in Kachin. So, by scanning the real exhibition, anyone can watch it,” said Nyi Lynn Seck.

“VR doesn’t have a lot of exposure in Myanmar and other ASEAN countries, for now. But [I] think it will be booming in the next year or two,” affirmed Nyi Lynn Seck.

Then, everything will be virtually possible.


Address of the studio: No.1203, Konebaung Street, 6 Ward, South Okkalapa Township, Yangon.