Google’s New VR Tours Let You Experience Imperiled Cultural Sites Around The World

With photos and laser scans by preservation organization CyArk, Google provides virtual tours of places that may not last.

Google’s New VR Tours Let You Experience Imperiled Cultural Sites Around The World
Waitangi Meeting House, New Zealand. [Image: Courtesy of Open Heritage]

Riven by ethnic violence in recent years, Myanmar (aka Burma) is not a great place for tourists to visit. But a virtual trip to its stunning Buddhist temples is possible via a new project by high-tech cultural preservation organization CyArk. The Oakland-based nonprofit uses laser scans and extremely detailed photography to capture historic sites in exacting 3-D representation.


In a tie-up with CyArk, Google has launched Open Heritage, which uses the organization’s data to create 3-D tours of 27 cultural sites around the world, from the Buddhist temples of Bagan, Myanmar, to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, Colorado. They are available on the web, through VR viewers, and with Google’s Arts&Culture mobile app.

Extensive photos and scans enable a VR walkthrough of sites like Myanmar’s Eim Ya Kuang temple. [Image: Courtesy of Open Heritage]
Open Heritage is an expansion of Google’s Arts and Culture program, going beyond ultra high-res images of museum artworks to 3-D recreations of entire buildings and sites. The raw data used in Open Heritage is also available for people to build their own projects.

Virtual Rescue

The bittersweet focus of Open Heritage is on sites that may not last long. Bagan’s thousands of buildings sit on an active earthquake fault. A quake in August 2016 brought down tons of masonry, such as the spire of the five-sided Eim Ya Kuang temple.

CyArk happened to photograph and scan the building and several neighbors before the quake, and it returned afterwards. Open Heritage allows viewers to see not just photos and videos, but high-res 3-D models of how the structure looked before and after the trembler. The data enables VR walkthroughs of the closed-up building, and architectural renderings that CyArk says can help the restoration work.

Scans of Eim Ya Kuang temple from before and after the quake show the damage. [Image: Courtesy of Open Heritage ]
Technologist Ben Kacyra was inspired to create CyArk in 2001 after Taliban zealots blew up the giant standing Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Kacyra was a pioneer in developing light detection and ranging (aka lidar) technology. The laser-scanning tech, accurate to within millimeters, has long been used in surveying and now could be key for helping autonomous vehicles see road conditions. In 2003 CyArk began using lidar, other scanning tech, and precisely stitched together photos called Photogrammetry to create digital doppelgangers of global historic sites. Had CyArk existed and visited Bamiyan before the Taliban, a lifelike tour of the lost Buddhas might be possible.

The world isn’t getting any safer. After taking Kacyra’s hometown of Mosul, Iraq, in 2014, ISIS obliterated archeological sites including the ancient Assyrian Capital of Nineveh. CyArk had visited years earlier and taken detailed photos that are available on its site, although Nineveh is not among the initial Open Heritage projects.


The Brandenburg Gate from any angle. [Animation: Courtesy ofOpen Heritage]
No longer war-torn, Germany is much safer to visit than Iraq, with sites like Berlin’s 18th century Brandenburg Gate fully restored in recent decades. But a live visit couldn’t include a low-altitude daredevil flyover, or viewing the gate from underground, looking up through a transparent Earth. Both are possible with CyArk and Google’s 3-D model of the landmark.

Mesa Verde Balcony House in Colorado. [Image: Courtesy of Open Heritage]
There are several ways to explore what’s currently available. Open Heritage offers photos, videos, 3-D scans, and detailed descriptions accessible from a desktop or mobile web browser. The content is also available in the Arts&Culture app for Android and iOS, and VR platforms like Google Daydream. Apple is behind the curve on VR, but the Google Cardboard adapter allows a serviceable VR experience.

About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, sciences, and policy journalist. @seancaptain.