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Palace to Enter Virtual Realm

Culture vultures will soon be able to enjoy the full splendour of the Palace Museum in Beijing without even going there, thanks to a new virtual tour that will be available online by 2008.

The project, a joint undertaking by the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, and computer company IBM, was launched on Friday. Organizers vowed that it would offer visitors an interactive, three-dimensional view of the palace.

"This online environment presented in Chinese and English languages that enables visitors to experience the culture and stories of the museum is a first-of-its-kind idea," said James Yeh, chief technology officer of IBM China.

Technology will help visitors learn more about the ritual centre of the Ming and the Qing dynasties (1368 - 1911), and its collections of treasures.

The virtual tour will provide images from all over the 780,000-square-metre palace, and solve the current problem that not all treasures and rooms are open to the public due to protection work.

"The Palace Museum is a big book; there are always places you haven't read about," said Hu Chui, director of the Information Department of the Palace Museum.

"The virtual platform breaks the boundaries of time and space, meaning visitors can see whatever they want."

As well as seeing the present, they can also see images from the past, Hu said.

Museum volunteer Zhuang Zeping said the interactive online museum benefits those who cannot come to the palace.

"A lot of people aren't able to come here for various reasons. It is such a pity," Zhuang said. "But the online content can allow everyone to feast on one of the most beautiful museums in the world."

The younger generation, who appear less interested in acquiring knowledge of Chinese culture, are a major target audience, according to Hu.

"Youngsters grow up with MacDonalds and KFC. The interaction and games content in the virtual tour will attract more young people to understand and love our cultural heritage," he noted.

For example, in the virtual tour historical figures can actually talk to visitors and answer their questions. The stories behind the buildings and treasures will also be told.

Project organizers are bracing themselves for tough challenges ahead.

"There are huge numbers of stories and pictures, and tourists will be of all ages and with different cultural backgrounds and interests. They will all have their own preferences. Therefore, meeting the demands of each visitor will be challenging," said Yeh.

Another challenge is how to build up an informative multilingual platform. Due to difficulty in translating cultural content, to start with the virtual museum will have more images than text.

"It is hard to translate culture and what is behind the culture," Yeh said. "But we have confidence that a multiple-language environment will be achieved."

(China Daily June 19, 2006)

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