I did a short fly-through of the new virtual world "Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time" created by IBM and the Palace Museum of China. The goal of the project is "to provide the means for a world-wide audience to celebrate and explore aspects of Chinese culture and history" through doing a virtual tour of one of its most revered cultural sites, the Forbidden City.
Here are some of my impressions after having visited it a few times this week.
Three years in the making, the Forbidden City immerses you in lush 3D graphical representations of the City, crowds of avatars and bots running around you in period dress, soothing period music that accents each section, and interesting activities along the way. I enjoyed the cricket fighting and archery, but found the byzantine rules of the ancient game of weiqi too hard to master in my first visit.
The experience was not without its hitches. Several times I lost control of my avatar, the arrow keys totally unresponsive and the menus not loading at all. But mostly it's a slickly implemented product that delivers a lot of content about Chinese culture in an engaging way.
Forbidden City is a virtual world in the sense that other avatars are present with you at the same time. You can communicate with them via text chat, send private messages, and friend each other. That said, I was mostly unsuccessful at getting anyone to talk to me, probably because most of the users there were from China. I had a very stilted conversation with one avatar logging in from Malaysia.
I would be curious about why IBM and the Palace Museum decided to create the Forbidden City as a virtual world, rather than a single player experience. I'm not sure what is gained by being there with other people, since the content seems to be delivered on an individual basis. I.e. I don't see them holding large group events, competitions, collaborative building projects, concerts, or any other activities that would benefit from a multi-user environment.
How would this compare to visiting the real world Forbidden City, I wonder? While quite grand looking on my iMac, I'm sure the real one is breathtaking and awesome. I would love to walk amidst 700 year old structures that were the center of power for a vast empire. Then again, you can not click on statues and get them to tell you their history, nor can you pick up buildings and rotate them around in space to see how they are designed. And I bet they don't let you practice your archery in the courtyard.
Download Forbidden City directly from http://www.beyondspaceandtime.org. Runs on both a Mac and a PC.