Time Machine: Google Rebuilds Ancient Rome in 3D

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A new innovation for Google Earth promises time travel to 4th century Rome. Great effort was expended to render the ancient buildings in 3D -- the results, though, are mixed.

Ancient Rome can now be toured virtually -- as a 3D model available through Google Earth. In collaboration with the University of Virginia, various research institutions, and several businesses specializing in 3D graphics, Google has constructed a replica of the city in the year 320 AD. At that time, the city was at the apex of its architectural and technological glory. The project was officially launched on Thursday amid much pomp and a blessing from the mayor of Rome.

Bernard Frischer, director of the project Rome Reborn at the University of Virginia, spoke of the digital unveiling as "another step in creating a virtual time machine which our children and grandchildren will use to study the history of Rome."

Still, walking around digital Rome is not a source of unadulterated joy. Only a portion of over 5,000 buildings are visible, and these resemble cardboard boxes. Even if you're using top-of-the-line hardware, the buildings disappear as you navigate around, like a 3D computer game programmed in 1996.

Google recommends using a computer set-up that would make even a hardcore computer nerd flush. The rest of us might prefer to limit ourselves to a quick look, or, better still, to flip through a coffee-table book.

Most of the buildings are without surface texture and even the more detailed replicas, like the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, have the charm of architectural drawings or cardboard models.

A look at the original, physical template, the University of Virginia's Rome Reborn model, makes it clear what we ought to be seeing: faithfully rendered replicas with surface structure and solid, convincing buildings.

A more detailed model of Rome can be seen in the form of a recently released, complex 3D-animation film, which soon will be shown in a special theater next to the (actual) Colosseum in the heart of old Rome.

The most useful part of Google's Rome (aside from the PR boost for all involved) are the written texts: by clicking on yellow markers, users can get interesting information about individual buildings on their screen, sometimes with links for further reading.

For the moment, the Internet Rome is basically a gimmick, a jittery interactive map. In the long-term, though, Bernard Frischer is right when he says that such designs have potential: "In the long run they will change the way we do research."

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