Monday, June 12, 2006

Ancient city comes to life

Ancient city comes to life
May 2006

It's a long way from the 13th century Khmer empire to modern-day Australia, but a researcher in Monash's IT faculty is bringing the two worlds together.

Report: Melissa Marino
Photography: Paul Philipson

History on parade: One of Mr Chandler's computer-generated 3D animations of life in ancient Angkor.

Eight centuries ago, the ancient city of Angkor was one of the largest in the world. Today, it is an archaeological and tourist site in north-west Cambodia that is survived only by its famous stone temple -- Angkor Wat.

Now, using the latest technology, Monash IT lecturer Mr Tom Chandler is breathing new life into the ancient city from his office at the university's Berwick campus.

His PhD research has seen him recreate swathes of Angkor's landscape using sophisticated visualisation and simulation IT technologies. The results may help social science researchers and the general public visualise abstract processes such as the pattern of settlement through time.

Angkor, the capital of the ancient Khmer empire, was founded around the ninth century AD, but the city reached its peak in the 12th century, when Angkor Wat was built. Covering about 81 hectares, the temple complex consists of five towers, which are represented on the Cambodian national flag. In 1992, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee declared the monument and the city of Angkor a World Heritage site.

With a click of Mr Chandler's computer mouse, hundreds of ancient Khmers come to life and march with their elephants across his computer screen, past intact villages in a long royal procession.

The 3D animation lasts little more than 20 seconds but took six months to create. Everything in the picture was 'built' from scratch -- the colour and light, the layout of the houses and temples, the lumbering roll of the elephants' gait and the Khmers themselves.

This animation was created with the help of Mr Chandler's multimedia students. Their reconstruction of ancient cultures -- including elephant battles and other special effects -- promises to have a very real impact for researchers both in Cambodia and worldwide.

Ancient animator: Mr Tom Chandler.
"This is potentially something very powerful for helping people understand, interpret and experiment with historical theories, particularly for a town such as Angkor, whose tropical climate has ensured old texts and wooden houses have long since decayed," Mr Chandler says.

"Basically, the animation is in two layers. You have a graphical front-end that people can interact with, but underneath there is another layer of simulated mechanics driving what you see on the screen."

One of the technologies used to simulate these landscapes is the cellular automaton model -- a simulation tool resembling a grid of thousands of squares or cells, often used in mathematics and theoretical biology, where each cell possesses a finite number of states and can influence the cells around it.

The cellular automaton cells used in Mr Chandler's simulation each contain properties that represent elements of the ancient landscape, be they a canal, a rice field or a house.
By changing properties within the cells, originally drawn from archaeological maps, excavation data and satellite images, he hopes to open up the study of history like never before.

"Hopefully, it is a tool that archaeologists can use to test theories," he says. "In a simulated space, people can hypothesise freely and experiment with parameters."

Those parameters may describe the society itself where, through the simulation, it may be possible to see what the breaking point of an event or issue was, which could inform what might have brought about a society's demise.

Mr Chandler's fascination with Cambodia began in 2001, when the archaeology and fine arts graduate tired of the successful career he had carved in advertising agencies in New York and London and 'dropped in' on Cambodia on his way home to Australia.

Angkor dreaming: A typical Angkor house from eight centuries ago.
Five months later he left but was so taken by the place that he returned the following year and worked on an excavation of the Greater Angkor Project -- a study into the size and demise of the city by the University of Sydney, which is now co-supervising his PhD.

With a bit of tweaking, Mr Chandler hopes his research may have other practical applications, such as providing information about modern infrastructure and sustainability.

"Ideally, we could adapt the model to visualise what Cambodia is like today with modern roads and power grids, similar to the landscape you see when flying in a plane," he says. Cambodian organisations have already shown interest in visualising rural areas to assist with land mine clearance.

Mr Chandler also sees possibilities for the technology to be used as virtual heritage to give people an opportunity to experience fragile or inaccessible locations or areas where only fragments of the original structures survive.

Already, he says, the technology can help illuminate people's experience of Angkor, a booming tourist destination and one of the most frequently visited archaeological sites in Asia.

"For tourists who visit Angkor or for the general public, it's a great tool. People are shown countless stone ruins, but a consideration for the city that created these monuments is often overlooked," he says. "It is a great way to bring history to life."

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