Students Use Virtual Reality To Recreate Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins

The ancient Mayan civilization in Central America collapsed around 1,000 years ago but is now being brought to life thanks to a new Penn State project, that is using virtual reality (VR) to bring the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech back to life.

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The project (Immersive Technologies for Archaeology) is being driven by two doctoral students in geography, Jiawei Huang and Arif Masrur, who have worked to recreate Chal Pech. The project is though ChoroPhroensis, a research unit in Penn State’s Department of Geography found by Alexander Klippel, professor of Geography. Klippels research focuses on immersive technologies and spatial information theory and how they can be used within the filed of geographical studies.

Masrur holds a master’s degree in geography, specializing in cartography and spatial analysis, from the University of Northern Iowa, where he worked as a researcher at the ARCTICenter, an interdisciplinary polar research center. With a strong interest in data-driven geographic research, Masrur was keen to apply his knowledge to the world of VR. “I wanted to apply my technical skills from virtual and augmented reality to capture the historical sites in an immersive environment. Cahal Pech has provided me a great opportunity,” Masrur says.

Huang, who holds a master’s degree in environmental informatics from the University of Michigan, has been able to combine her passion for geography and cultural heritage thanks to this project. “A lot of artifacts are excavated from tombs, pointing to the elite cultural practice of putting jade masks on their dead. Due to harsh climatic change and droughts, Mayan social and political systems disintegrated around  900 A.D. We have the opportunity to collaborate with people from Penn State’s Department of Anthropology and Northern Arizona University to help the public and researchers explore the site remotely using virtual reality,” Huang says.

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The project to recreate Chal Pech in VR builds on the work conducted by Penn State doctoral anthropology alumna Claire Ebert, who is now a visiting scholar of archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh.  Her research in Belize examined the relationship between diet, climate change and resilience among the Maya during the Preclassic and Classic periods (1000 B.C. – A.D. 900). With this as a starting point and the support of Penn State’s Department of Geography, Huang and Masrur have been working to recreate the ruins of Chal Pech in VR to allow other researcher and anyone interest in Mayan heritage a chance to experience a piece of history.

Huang has been working on the project since last summer with Masrur joining her earlier this year. While in Central America, the students visited the site early in the morning to capture images for structure-from-motion mapping along with panorama images to help build a detailed bank of reference material. Once they had enough, they created lifelike 3D models of each part of the ruin to recreate it to an accurate scale. This included each of the complex 34 structures, including a pyramidal temple, several plazas and two ball courts. The high-definition simulation allows user to zoom in and view the minutest architectural details which the project is aiming to recreate.

“The idea is to use these immersive technologies to understand cultural heritage. Even as a tourist, you can focus your camera on a particular site, and find additional information from the minerals inside the structure to the cultural history attached to it,” Masrur says.

The team have been building the experience for use with the HTC Vive and Oculus headsets but are also planning to release a mobile version as well. VRFocus will be sure to bring you all the latest on this project in the future so stay tuned for more.