CULTURAMA: a journey through time
by Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
CULTURAMA, a unique, interactive multimedia program which was on display at WIPO earlier this summer, opens a window onto Egypt’s spectacular cultural and natural heritage. It offers an immersive virtual journey across time, with material spanning 5,000 years of human civilization from the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt to the present day. Mr. Mohamed Farouk, who conceptualized and developed CULTURAMA with his colleagues at the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), in Cairo, Egypt explains how the project came about and its principle objectives.
What is CULTURAMA?
CULTURAMA (short for cultural panorama) brings to life a panoply of fascinating and compelling historical events that have profoundly influenced human civilization. It is the first fully interactive multimedia system that offers striking panoramic displays of cultural heritage information on a huge semicircular screen, using nine high-resolution video projectors controlled by a single computer. Using this platform, it is possible to seamlessly display information such as historical time lines, archeological sites and digitally restored artifacts in ways that cannot be achieved using standard computer displays. Built with readily available off-the-shelf computer equipment, CULTURAMA offers cultural institutions a cost-effective, flexible and mobile solution for delivering cultural content with minimal maintenance costs.
The Pyramids of Giza are the most famous monuments of Ancient Egypt. These massive stone structures are thought to have been built some 4,500 years ago.
Inspiration for the project
Fully engaged in CULTNAT's main mission, to document the country's rich heritage, Mr. Farouk recalls that he and his colleagues were keen “to have something new to disseminate this information, not just regular channels like video clips or books. We wanted something that would capture the imagination of a much wider audience.” Identifying the relevant technologies to build the platform proved quite a challenge forcing the team to think out of the box. The technological solution they came up with was granted a patent by the Egyptian Patent Office (patent number 23651) in 2007 and is the subject of an international patent application - WO2005086127 - under WIPO's Patent Cooperation Treaty.
The idea behind CULTURAMA took shape in 2001 when Mr. Farouk and his team began documenting Egyptian tombs, many of which are closed to the public. “We thought, why not create a digital copy and a setting that makes it possible for the public to enter these tombs virtually,” he explains. “We started looking around for the components that would make it possible for us to turn this idea into reality. This was quite a challenge at that time, because the technological landscape was quite different from what it is today. When we finally developed and fine-tuned the technology and our methodology, it soon became clear that we would be able to use it to introduce the public to many different types of information,” he explains.
The room known as "the botanical garden" in Karnak
Temple features walls inscribed with a variety of flora
and fauna common at the time of the reign of
Thotmosis III. (Photo: CULTNAT)
Aims of the project
In developing CULTURAMA, Mr. Farouk and his team had two main objectives. First, to develop a low-cost, user-friendly platform that makes it possible to deliver cultural and historical information in a clear, concise and compelling way. “If you have an attractive methodology for delivering cultural information, it becomes more meaningful to the audience you are reaching out to,” he observes.
The project's second objective is to spread the idea of immersive systems and virtual museums to ensure the broadest possible access to the world's cultural heritage. This is something Mr. Farouk is passionate about. “I have a dream that all human heritage will be accessible to everyone in this way. With a tool that highlights the similarities between cultures, we can create a platform for dialogue, enabling us to better understand each other. We really need this in today's world.”
Spanning 5,000 years of history
CULTURAMA recounts three different periods of Egyptian history: Ancient Egypt, highlights of Coptic and Islamic civilizations, and Modern Egypt. The Ancient Egyptian period displays the timeline of the Pharaohs, from 3000 BC to the emergence of the Gregorian calendar. This section features a chronology of well-known kings and multiple layers of background information accessible by clicking on highlighted icons.
For example, by clicking on Thotmosis III it is possible to access a room in the Karnak Temple (the largest temple in the world) known as the “botanical garden”, the walls of which are inscribed with a wide range of natural flora and fauna common in Egypt at the time of his reign. Viewers can also obtain additional information about the various animals, birds and plants that are depicted by clicking on them.
The Ancient Egyptian time line also features the Rhind mathematical papyrus, considered one of the most famous mathematical papyri of the period. The Rhind papyrus is five meters long and contains 86 different mathematical problems and their solutions. CULTURAMA has made it possible to magnify and display the document in its entirety, enabling users to examine it closely and zoom in to the mathematical problem of their choice to obtain an English translation of the featured hieroglyphic text.
CULTURAMA also offers seamless panoramic displays of important archeological sites, such as the Karnak Temple complex, the Nilometer in Cairo, and the Pyramids of Giza. These displays are a key feature of the sections covering Coptic and Islamic civilizations and Modern Egypt. For example, the Modern Egypt section includes a panoramic view of Cairo from the Nile and another of the port of Alexandria as seen from the sea. By clicking on specific landmarks, users can access different layers of relevant information. A highlight of the panoramic view of Cairo, for example, is that by clicking on the Qasr al-Nil bridge, users access archival footage of the daily life of the bridge filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1895.
The Nilometer in Cairo is a unique historical site. It was used to measure the levels of the Nile River during the annual flood season;
to regulate water distribution and to calculate the levels of taxes to be paid. (Photo: CULTNAT)
CULTURAMA takes audiences, young and old, on a fascinating journey that traces the outstanding achievements and enduring influence of ancient Egyptian civilization through to the present day. It is both an attractive educational tool and an enthralling cultural experience that many museum design experts and managers perceive as an essential element for every important museum.
CULTURAMA is currently available at seven permanent installations in Egypt's largest cities, and has travelled the world featuring in international exhibitions in over 10 countries. A new more highly interactive 3-D version of the platform is due to be released later this year.