When the first immersive 3D games came out, I asked a programmer if he knew of anyone who had used that technology to create a Virtual Ancient Rome or Virtual Ancient Athens. I loved the idea of walking around in a place whose current face was changed out of all recognition from its golden age. He shook his head. Creating virtual worlds was way too time consuming and required too much specialist knowledge and so was too expensive. A virtual Rome wouldn't create the profit that Doom did.

Fast forward a decade and the programming necessary becomes easier to do and the number of people who know how to do it have increased substantially. The costs involved in creating a virtual world have decreased at the same time that academic and scholarly institutions have become much more willing to invest in it.

Now that it's quite a bit easier to find a virtual ancient city to stroll through, I thought I would survey a few options and provide you with a short virtual atlas of the ancient world.

Rome Reborn
Working with international partners, the Virtual Heritage Laboratory at the University of Virginia has created a series of "3D digital models illustrating the urban development of ancient Rome from the first settlement in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages (ca. A.D. 550)." They stared with Rome in 320 A.D., after which date few civic buildings were added to the city. Click through for a video tour of the city.

Ancient Spaces: Acropolis of Athens
Ancient Spaces is a "a student-built, 'massively multiplayer' world based on classical antiquity" at the University of British Columbia. Among their projects are a set of 3D video tours of areas in classical Athens' Acropolis, including the Parthenon and the Propylaea.

Prof. Antonio Serrato-Combe: Tenochtitlan
University of Utah's Serrato-Combe reconstructed the main public spaces of the Aztec city under Moctezumah. He produced a digital model of the "Great Temple" complex in that city on the eve of the Spanish invasion. Like all good historical digital modeling, the spaces are built on rigorous archaeological and architectural study. Prof. Serrato-Combe's work formed the basis of the British Museum's exhibition "Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler."

IBM and the Palace Museum: The Forbidden City
IBM and the Palace Museum, which oversees this Chinese national treasure, worked together to create a virtual walkable version of the Forbidden City, headquarters of Imperial China from about 1420 to 1912. The City, which requires you download a proprietary client to run the interaction, allows you to create an avatar, talk to other visitors and even practice archery.

In the same way that data visualization can be used to look at statistics and render them more immediate and meaningful, virtual or digital or 3D modeling, whether in graphics or video, can do the same thing for history. The present reality of the artifacts of history can exert a tyranny of their own. For instance, most people don't know that the majority of Greek and Roman statuary was painstakingly painted. Digital models can help elbow aside the dictatorship of the present for a flash of insight into the past.

Sharing these re-imaginings via Web services, from video sharing sites to downloadable models, is a radical distribution model we can only have dreamt of not long ago. In the past.

Column photo by Cliff