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Pompeii Frescoes Explore Virtual Reality

FROM the Discovery channel web site

Pompeii Frescoes Explore Virtual Reality

By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
May 28, 2003

Pompeian frescoes show startling evidence of what may have been a primitive form of virtual reality, according to British researchers who have uncovered elaborate three- dimensional wall paintings depicting theater scenes.

Frozen in time by the eruption that nearly 2,000 years ago covered Pompeii and the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Stabiae with nine to 20 feet of hot ash and pumice, the lavish Roman villas feature extravagant frescos filled with tricks of perspective to impress guests.

Using 3-D digital models, researchers at the University of Warwick are now transforming these ancient frescos back into virtual reality representations of Roman theaters.

"We have created the world's first computer generated 3-D models of early temporary wooden sets from paintings. These are used to recreate virtual performances, and virtual actors can be put on the stages, so you can see what it would have been like to be a member of the audience," said theater history professor Richard Beacham.

Carried out by the University of Warwick's "e-lab," in conjunction with the University's School of theater Studies, the project also decoded an ancient perspective technology.

As they analyzed the structures shown in the frescos, the researchers found that the pictures used a unique perspective scenic painting technique to suggest 3-D architectural structures on two-dimensional surfaces.

Called skenographia, the technique was first used in 5th century B.C. Greek theater. Basically, it featured vanishing point perspective to create the illusion of depth. Later, the technique was taken up by the Romans to embellish their sumptuous villas.

"One challenge is to discern the real stage image within the impossible and fantastic painted architecture embellishing it. By revisiting the paintings with computer modelling, it is possible to pull out the real architecture and then work out what the actual theaters looked like," Beacham said.

The reconstructions would enable viewers to step into and navigate long-lost Roman theaters rather than examining static displays and two- dimensional photographs or drawings.

"This project marries our knowledge of ancient texts about theater with what archaeologists have discovered about ancient visual culture, especially the many preserved wall paintings that represent ancient Roman theater in context," John R. Clarke, professor of history of art at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of several books on ancient Rome, told Discovery News.

"Beacham's virtual reality reconstructions have the potential of making ancient theater come alive for modern viewers," he said.