Photo credit: Baidu.
Inside one of Beijing’s subway cars, passengers stand shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s not rush hour, but throngs of people are packed inside, all but blocking the red signs for Baidu’s augmented reality restoration project.
“The traditional way to preserve these [relics] was to not let anyone touch them,” Wu Zhongqin, head of Baidu’s new AR Lab tells Tech in Asia. “But now, through AR, I can do a detailed reconstruction of the 3D model of the environment.”
“It’s as if entire buildings can be alive in the virtual world,” he says.
This week, Baidu showcased its AR rendition of Beijing’s nine ancient city gates. Using the company’s search app, Mobile Baidu, people can scan photos in the subway to trigger virtual models of dynastic Beijing to pop up on their phones – horses pulling carts of water, guards pacing the street. It’s supposed to be an interactive history lesson, inspired by the daughter of a Baidu engineer who wondered why Chaoyangmen – men means gate in Chinese – didn’t have an ancient gate.
Most of Beijing’s city gates have been demolished.
“Because of the chaos and fires of war, as well as the choice to develop the city, most of them have been demolished,” says Zhongqin.
Under Chairman Mao in the 1950s, many historical buildings were destroyed, including temples, gates, and Beijing’s city wall itself. The construction of the capital’s train and railway system also wreaked havoc on ancient infrastructure. Today, only the capital’s street signs – some of which say “inner” or “outer” – hint at the vanished city wall. Some of the city gates have been heavily renovated.
In order to create 3D, virtual models of Beijing’s nine city gates, Baidu’s team compiled old photographs. These grainy photos were used to train the app’s image recognition engine, which identifies the right gate when users scan photos or the renovated city gates. With the help of academics and scholars, Baidu’s engineers refined and tweaked their 3D animations and virtual models.
One of Beijing’s ancient gates. Photo credit: Baidu.
The project is still at an early stage. The AR functionality is basic, and the models don’t really map to real objects shown in your smartphone camera. It’s also not clear how many people are trying it out, as it requires subway passengers to reach out and scan small images on the side of the subway car.
Zhongqin says the company plans to launch a more sophisticated augmented reality app sometime in April. That version – which was demoed on Monday – does include proper 3D tracking. Instead of moving with your smartphone camera, the rendered city gate sticks to the image it’s supposed to overlay.
“Though I was born and raised in Beijing, I didn’t know any of these things,” said Diao Xuefei, PR spokesperson at Baidu, at a press conference on Monday talking about the history of the capital’s gates. “Without this project, I wouldn’t have understood or known these stories.”
AR and VR technology can’t undo the disappearance of thousands of Chinese relics.
Baidu’s virtual restoration project isn’t the first of its kind, but it taps into China’s growing desire to appreciate and preserve its rich and cultural past. Last year, Beijing’s Old Summer Palace featured virtual reality and augmented reality exhibitions of the site’s lost gardens. In 2015, an undergraduate student at NYU Shanghai created a VR experience of his traditional shikumen neighborhood in Shanghai, which was slated for demolition.
Still, AR and VR technology can’t undo the disappearance of thousands of relics, the consequence of China’s rapid development and urbanization over the past 20 years. However, as the technology becomes more and more accessible, perhaps more people will experience China’s cultural past – albeit virtually – and take preservation into their own hands.