This World Heritage Site Is Closed To Visitors, But Now You Can Take A Virtual Reality Tour

More and more closed-off places–like the fragile Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in the Gobi Desert–will become accessible as the technology improves.

Carved into cliffs in the Gobi Desert, 700 ancient grottos called the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas hold paintings and sculptures that date as far back as the second century. Unsurprisingly, the World Heritage Site is a little fragile, and many of the grottos are usually closed to the public. But a new experiment in virtual reality is opening up one of the caves for exploration from people around the world.


In San Francisco, 6,500 miles from the original site on the Silk Road, I strapped on a pair of Oculus Rift goggles and stepped into the cave, an ancestral shrine from the Tang Dynasty. On one wall, seven Buddhas balanced on lotuses in front of a brightly colored scene from Buddhist paradise. On another wall, a Chinese emperor stood in full ceremonial attire.

To make the virtual visit possible, the grotto was scanned with a 3-D-scanner to gather every detail, a process that took three months. Then, researchers from RMIT University in Australia put together the equipment to turn the data into an immersive experience.

I wore a laptop in a backpack on my back, running a graphics card dedicated to the huge file. On the front of the Oculus Rift, the researchers added a sensor for my hands, so I could wave them in the virtual room as I walked around–making it easier to orient myself. As I walked, headphones played suitably meditative music. A Kinect followed my movements so I could see the right part of the grotto as I turned.

“We have developed this platform with equipment that a lot of people already have at home,” says Stefan Greuter, director of the Centre for Game Design Research at RMIT. “We’ve done that thinking that people might use it in their lounge rooms.”

“It’s still being researched, but I can imagine people using it to visit places that they can’t visit–the bridge on the Starship Enterprise, or Seinfeld’s apartment,” he says. “Or, of course, scanned World Heritage Sites.” (Already, companies like Marriot are thinking of sending people on “virtual honeymoons.”)

For sites that are at risk of disappearing, either from age, natural disasters, or human destruction, virtual visits may eventually be the only way to visit, using data scanned by nonprofits like CyArk. The RMIT researchers have worked on other ways to display the sites, like an augmented reality room. But as virtual reality tech improves, a visit from your living room may eventually be as good as the real thing.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.