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Virtual 3-D Experience at the Freer and Sackler Galleries

The Freer and Sackler Galleries have finally figured out how we can tunnel to China — all we need is 3-D virtual technology, a million dollars worth of 3-D projectors, a mini iPad, a heated tent and 15 minutes.

From Saturday through Dec. 9, Washingtonians can visit a Chinese Buddhist cave that is not only half a world away but is also permanently closed to the public. 

“Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang” is a virtual exhibit that brings the UNESCO-protected Dunhuang caves to the public. There are close to 1,000 of the Buddhist caves, but only 10 are open to the public.

The installation struggles to resolve the constant paradox of archeological and historical site.

“[Researchers and historians] want people to come,” says Leith Chan, a project manager on “Pure Land.” Of course, “when people come, they destroy them.”

“Pure Land” was created by Jeffrey Shaw, dean of the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong, and it took a team of 12 full-time staff to develop and execute this project in six months. The team used new technologies, including a 3-D engine, as well as old technology such as hand-painted images. The music is even specially composed to enhance the experience.

All this together makes visitors feel as if they’ve been transported across the world. The experience is perhaps more incredible for being digital and, of course, for being new. For now the installation includes only one cave, but the team hopes to re-create five more.

One may not be able to smell the damp and must of these gorgeous cave paintings, but through the touch of the small screen you can fly up and down the walls, magnify the paintings and gape as the the digitally enhanced, animated restoration of the paintings pop out and begin to dance and play music.

Only 10 visitors are allowed into the installation at one time, and the experience lasts 15 minutes. Everyone will don some pretty serious-looking 3-D glasses and head into a tent ringed with a giant 365-degree screen and six 3-D projectors. The installation is free, but tickets will be given out on a first-come, first-served basis to visitors in person starting at 10 a.m. Each ticket will have the time of the tour, and the last tour will begin at 5:15 p.m.

The exhibit is a treat for Washingtonians as it has been shown only in Hong Kong and has no plans to travel. But it is scheduled to return as a long-term installation at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in spring 2013.

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