Augmented Reality – Now a Thing In Chinese Museums!

PHILADELPHIA — Imagine pointing your phone at China’s ancient terracotta warriors to arm them with spears and bows, weapons that disintegrated long ago.

For many people, the Franklin Institute’s new exhibition, “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor,” will be the only chance to see a small subset of the approximately 8,000 clay soldiers and other figures that were discovered beneath a Chinese persimmon orchard in 1974. Some 2,200 years ago, they were built by the emperor Qin Shihuangdi in a massive public works project that lasted about 30 years.

While some of these 10 warriors have been exhibited elsewhere, the institute is enhancing the experience with augmented reality technology to digitally recreate weapons and other objects that were originally held by the statues. The original artifacts crumbled and vanished as earthen walls and roof timbers collapsed during the warriors’ long occupancy of three underground pits.

Three-dimensional images of the objects and the statues have been developed using photogrammetry, a process based on taking thousands of photographs.


Brian Yetzer, left, and Peter Locharernkul worked to digitally map a statue for 3D modeling at the Franklin Institute. Credit Lendl Tellington/The Franklin Institute

Technology experts worked with curators to digitally recreate objects like swords and spears that were held by the warriors. They did the same with the two nonmilitary figures in the show – a civil official and a musician – to represent objects that they would have held or stood next to.

The technology is available to museumgoers through an app that they can download to their smartphones when they book tickets or arrive at the museum. Visitors can activate the digital images of the warriors’ weapons by holding their phones in front of a two-dimensional “target” that’s fixed to the interpretive display with each statue.

Once a “missing” object like a spear appears on the viewer’s phone, it can be manipulated to allow the user to see features such as shape and color.

Technologists ensured the historical accuracy of the images by drawing on the expertise of museum staff.

“The curators worked with the developers on what type of metal this would be, what type of wood this would have been, so it really takes you back in time to see the weapons as they would have been originally made,” said Susan Poulton, the institute’s chief digital officer. “When you see the pits, you really don’t see them really holding all their weaponry, and this gives you a chance to see how they would have stood in the original pit.”

In coming weeks, the Institute will upgrade the technology so that visitors can activate the augmented reality simply by pointing their phones at the statues themselves.

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Warriors in the Terracotta Army museum in Xian, China. Some 8,000 clay soldiers and other figures were discovered beneath a Chinese persimmon orchard in 1974. Credit David Hogsholt for The New York Times

From left, Kevin Carr, Jeffery Ian Wilson and Floyd Clinton, a digital preservation team, took thousands of photos of the warrior statues to recreate them digitally, a process called photogrammetry. Credit The Franklin Institute

Ms. Poulton said the adoption of technology recognizes that many museumgoers, especially millennials and their children, want to be able to use their phones to enhance the museum experience.

“It’s not that they think it’s a distraction,” she said. “They expect to be able to experience this exhibit through their phone. And that’s only going to grow as millennials have kids. How do we meet the visitors where they are technologically instead of trying to bring them to where we want them to be?”

The process of discovery using technology mirrors the recreation of the warriors themselves, all of which were in pieces when they were found, broken by the deterioration of their underground home over two millenniums.

The exhibition, which also includes hundreds of associated artifacts from museums around China, aims to tell the story not only of how the emperor created his enormous retinue for the afterlife but how the figures were rebuilt despite the absence of any guide or template.

“They needed to sort the pieces of the armored officer from the pieces of the archer that might have been standing beside him, and they were all mixed together,” said Karen Elinich, the exhibition’s co-curator. “This is a monumental feat of archaeology and conservation.”


Scholars have been able to infer what the figures would have been carrying by drawing conclusions based on rank and function, and by examining the position of the figures’ hands. Credit The Franklin Institute

The curators say the embrace of this digital technology recognizes that museumgoers today, especially millennials and their children, want to use their phones to enhance the museum experience. Credit The Franklin Institute

Even though objects such as spears and swords had disappeared from the warriors’ grasp long before they were unearthed, scholars have been able to infer what the figures would have been carrying by drawing conclusions based on rank and function, and by examining the position of the figures’ hands, Ms. Elinich said.

Archers, for example, would have held crossbows, while cavalrymen would have been made with one hand holding a horse’s reins, leaving the other free to hold a spear. In each case, scholarship has been used to inform the creation of the digital images.

It’s the first time the museum has used augmented reality, to engage more visitors. The technology is part of a process that will eventually include Artificial Intelligence (AI), said Larry Dubinski, the institute’s president.

“Our goal is not only to show what this technology can do, but also what visitors can learn from it,” he said.

The exhibit, “Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor,” opens Saturday and runs until March 4, 2018.

Article has been taken integrally from The New York Times.

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