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World Review: Virtual Forbidden City
Main Review

Compatible with Operating Systems:
Win XP MacOS-X Linux Vista

World Status: Operational


World Purpose: Education

Age Suitability: Anyone


World-Type

Opened to the public in mid October 2008, IBM?s virtual forbidden city is a to scale replica of the Chinese city of the same name which served China for centuries as an exclusive realm for the nation's emperors. To create it, IBM spent more than three years working with Chinese officials and the Palace Museum to construct an interactive, animated replica of the 178-acre walled fortress in the Dongcheng District of Beijing.

The world is thus entirely a cultural replica, an attempt to preserve as an immersive museum, as close as possible, the original structure and life within it, a way for current and future generations to see and feel the nature of the City.

In a statement, said Henry Chow, chairman of IBM's Greater China Group said:

"The rich cultural heritage of China's imperial past, embodied in the Forbidden City for over five centuries, is now brought to life and accessible to all through a virtual world.

"This initiative takes the online experience to a new level of innovation with rich content, educational storytelling, community and social networking features that represent the next generation of 3D Internet applications."

Blurb taken from the home site attempts to explain the project:

The Virtual Forbidden City is a 3-dimensional virtual world where visitors from around the world can experience the Forbidden City in Beijing. You can explore the magnificent palace as it was during the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 until 1912, the end of the Imperial period in China.

The Forbidden City was created to embody the idea of the emperor as the center of the universe, and to evoke a visceral sense of his power. This huge palace complex was completed in 1420 and covers more than 72 hectares (178 acres). It contains hundreds and hundreds of exquisite buildings and historic artefacts. Now, using virtual world technology, you can experience the awe inspired by this vast and amazing space. And rather than experiencing its wonders in isolation, the Virtual Forbidden City allows you to see and interact with other users and a range of helpful automated characters. As you explore the Virtual Forbidden City, you can choose to simply observe the buzz of activity, or you can take tours and participate in activities that provide insights into important aspects of Qing culture.

While it provides an immersive and compelling experience in its own right, the Virtual Forbidden City also provides an unequalled way to plan a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing, as the Forbidden City is now known. If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the Palace Museum, you will be much better able to find your way and to understand the significance of places and things that you encounter because of your experiences in the Virtual Forbidden City.

Given the depth and longevity of Chinese history and culture, the Virtual Forbidden City can only begin to reveal the countless amazing stories that can be told. Hopefully, your explorations here will encourage you to learn more about what you encounter, and to continue to return to the Virtual Forbidden City to discover things that you haven't yet experienced.

Virtual forbidden city is a client-based VR, and it is a fairly hefty one, weighing in at around 200mb for the initial download, differing for each operating system by a few megabytes. The spec also demands a 700kb/sec download link, so why there is a provided download estimation time of 8 hours, specifically for dial-up users posted below the download links, is anyone?s guess. Why specifically tell those people the length of download, if they cannot then run it? (Note: download was performed with a DDSL line, so it did not simply detect the settings).

Whilst the blurb on the website is not particularly clear, there is no need for registration to use the program, but if you do register, it grants access to advanced features such as a scrapbook for charting your course through the city, as well as a selection of avatars. Registration also supposedly allows screenshots to be taken, but they are no different from the ones garnered from print-screen, so that benefit is somewhat dubious.


Forbidden city takes quite a significant while to initialise before you can actually use it, so help screens of fair detail are presented whilst it loads. On a state of the art system with memory to burn, you only have a few minutes to read this detailed help, pictured above. With older computers, you have...longer.

The reason for this delay considering the size and capabilities of the world, is never fully made clear. The world is pre-rendered in its entirety before use, so since the world is a city of approximately one mile in length complete with all buildings and major features, this may go some way towards explaining it. Also of note is the detail in the textures, which are all pre-cached into memory. Most have multiple resolutions so that they can be zoomed in on for increasing detail. However, the interactivity of the world is very basic, suggesting X3D or similar was used. Additionally, the loading times do hint at an interpreted scripting status rather than hard coding for many aspects.

The World in Brief


When you do first arrive in-world, it is to an enormous courtyard, the imposing gateway to the forbidden city. Behind you stretches a long, wide street leading back into Beijing. You can follow that street a little ways, looking at the architecture on either side, passing between lines of (sadly identical) trees until you reach another mighty gate at the other end. This, will not open for you, whatever you do.

In fact, it is a recurring theme of this recreation of the forbidden city that any door you can walk through, is already open for you. Moving, opening doors simpl;y do not exist. In fact, some open doors you cannot walk through, as an invisible wall of force blocks your way. You are not meant to leave the forbidden city, and the simulation actively constrains you to just that area.

In the entrance courtyard itself, at random locations are scattered other visitors like yourself. Guests (unregistered users) appear as the gentlemen pictured above, with names above them in white, reflecting their guest number, printed in English, Mandarin or Cantonese characters depending on that individual user's preference. Thus, they serve as a guide for communication; typing English to a person whose guest number is in Chinese symbols is likely a waste of an exercise.

Movement is simple, and consists of arrow keys only. No other method of input will work- there is no mouse movement option, which means most accessibility devices and full-immersion devices alike, will not function. There is no flying, no jumping. Literally the only movements are: forwards, backwards, turn left, turn right. If you meet a lip such as a curb, you will be unable to climb it, unless there is a designated short flight of stairs or ramp for you to climb. Free movement is permitted, but try as you might there is no way to walk across a lawn or a flowerbed. Those are purely for decoration and must not be violated.


However, considering the world is both a museum exhibit and an attempt to faithfully recreate a nobles and upper officials only area, such behavioural constraints do fit perfectly with how the forbidden city's denizens would behave. For once, being constrained in movement to only those areas of a greyish colour, and the floors within buildings, is a good thing.

Initially when you load up, there is no chart box, emphasising the world's primary purpose, not as a social space, but as a place of contemplation and study. Elegant, serene music washes over you if you have speakers on, and stays with you constantly, trying to bring in an air of tranquillity that makes communication less important. That said, it is a multi-user space, and if you desire to chat, simply selecting the option from the menu on the right - or pressing F8, brings up the chat box shown above.

It has a few basic graphical gestures on it, along with yes/no options that are intended for conversing with in-world bots. The chat display takes up only about an eigth of the screen as shown, and cannot be resized. Words are printed on it as graphics, so there is no log available, although you can scroll if the panel fills with text. Different chat streams have different tabs. Open in the screenshot at the moment are public chat, and tour group. Tour group is basically a chat for users following the same tour bot, one of about two dozen who speak to users nearby and ask them to join the bot on a tour of the facility, where the bot's avatar wanders about, giving detailed historical information to any who have accepted its invite to tour.

You can wander about following it, or leave the arrow keys alone, in which case your avatar obediently follows along behind.

 

Sub Reviews

Here at Virtual Worldlets, we look at all worlds, whether for entertainment, training, medicare, industry or military use. Thus, we have the situation where different uses judge by different criteria. Below are a series of sub-reviews, each tailored to a different aspect of the world.

Explorers
For some, its the thrill of discovery, the freedom to strike out, to pioneer. Whether its mapping new lands, or exploring unknown fields of endeavour, to be first, to boldly go, this is what explorers live for.

View



One of the nicer functions of virtual forbidden city, is the attention to detail in the view options. If you call them up, you gain a nice little panel which can be tweaked for just that perfect view. The options are, from left to right:

  • View Self
    Allows you to view your avatar from a camera position in front of you, looking back over your shoulder.

  • First Person View
    Places your viewpoint within the head of your avatar. A nice featurte about this mode is it literally puts your viewpoint where the avatar's head is, and still draws the avatar. This means that you are embodied; as you look around, you see parts of your avatar's body in the frame too. This can look a little funny at times, as you can look through your avatar's body if you go too far. Still, it is refreshing.

  • Third Person View
    A standard over-the shoulder third person view. This is default.

  • Birds-Eye View
    The camera attempts to go as high as it can, looking down on you. It will not pass through solid objects to do so, so the height you get, is the height of the ceiling when indoors or under a canopy. Outdoors, it seems to max out at about 50 feet up, but gives a sweeping view of the area.



Zoom

The zoom is a wonderful and unusual feature, found below the four options. It literally allows you to zoom in or out on any point in the world, refocussing like a camera does. At the - end, is normal vision, whilst at the plus end, feels like an 800x camera zoom. In the screenshot above, those balestrades are right the way across a courtyard, and the textures resize smoothly and dynamically with no slowdown whatsoever.

Move

Exactly how it sounds. Move your viewpoint up, down, left or right. Your avatar stays where it is, and the view will reset when you move. Perfect for getting a higher elevation, or seeing round that annoying column.

Rotate

Exactly the same as move, it allows you to look up or down, tilt your head side to side, and can be combined with Move to see any angle. Works in increments of around 10 degrees.

Map




The map function, also a direct access from the menu, is as detailed as you would expect from a museum. Zooming out to show the whole city, or in to show an individual room, it is filled with a wealth of information on every building, walkway, bridge, and stream inside the forbidden city. Even individual statues and plants in some cases. Everything is indexerd by colour, and you can choose what types of information to display, as well as a very detailed search.

In addition, it shows both your current position, and where you have been (as represented by a black line) within the city.

There are pockets of activity with bots in large numbers acting out scenes from daily life, and there are historical activities to take part in, which reflect aspects of what life was like within its walls.

 

Theraputic
Virual worlds which heal, environments which sooth, and eliminate fear. Utilising the virtual to remove pain, to remove anguish, to educate and compensate.

Virtual Forbidden City is not designed as an official therapeutic world, but it does have value, both in terms of the soft, slow oriental music it continually pumps out, and in the tranquil scenery which seems to have been deliberately designed to quieten the mind, and open to contemplation. It thus becomes a retreat from a hectic lifestyle, which does have significant therapeutic value of its own.

 

Educational
Virtual environments as classrooms, museums, theme parks, or galleries. Holding conferences or training for the job at hand. Holding their own, or beating back the physical for locational learning.


Virtual Forbidden City is first and foremost an educational resource. Overseen by the Palace Museum, the city can even be accessed from within a purpose built physical exhibit in Beijing itself. Liberal use of signs explaining the names of various elements, pop-up detail panes when you get close to one feature or another, and the tour guide bots themselves, designed to take individuals or groups on tours of the many elements of the Forbidden City all add up to edutainment as a core design strategy.

The world exists to educate and inform, making a significant part of China's cultural heritage accessible to everyone, irrespective of distance.

It could very easily even be considered a field trip without leaving the facility, for schools around the world. At the same time, it attempts to make the content engaging and easily accessible, although the lack of accessibility functions does hinder that to a degree.

 

 

Overall
It is hard to classify Virtual Forbidden City, as it is the first attempt of its kind, to recreate such a large piece of heritage in one hit. It does fall down a little bit on the interactive elements, as there are just not enough of them, and even full of other visitors, the city can feel abandoned at times - quiet, serene, undisturbed, and this hovering feeling that you should not spoil the atmosphere by talking. Thus, the community part of its nature has a hard time getting off the ground.

It is very much a serious world, with a serious purpose, but is perhaps a little too academic in nature. The large file size and hefty start-up times, being a symptom of the academic tendency to try and make sure everything is perfect and polished before letting people play.

An incremental loading system might not be a bad consideration really. Otherwise, a really good effort, and one which hopefully will see more interaction, and more activities as it grows.

 

Rating 71 / 100
Newbie Friendliness
9.0
/ 15
Community Values
2.0
/ 15
Believability
14.0
/ 15
Immersion
13.0
/ 15
Administration
9.0
/ 10
Automated help
9.5
/ 10
Code Integrity
9.5
/ 10
Entertainment
5.0
/ 10

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