The British Museum uses state-of-the-art 3D display to showcase first-ever virtual mummy unwrapping

Leicestershire 08 July 2004A 12-foot tall by 42-foot wide curved screen SGI Reality Center facility has been installed at the museum while Fakespace Systems Inc. provided the new state-of-the-art 3D immersive virtual reality theater for the British Museum. The stereoscopic visualization system is the centerpiece for a new exhibition titled "Mummy: The Inside Story", that takes visitors through an extraordinary virtual reality presentation where they will be able to experience the "virtual unwrapping" and exploration of the 3000 year old untouched body of Nesperennub, a priest from the temple of Khons who lived in 800 BC and who has been housed at the museum since 1899.

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For the first time in history, an Egyptian mummy has been comprehensively explored in 3D stereo in its entirety. This non-invasive technique has revealed intricate details about the dead man, including his age, lifestyle, appearance, state of health, and how he was mummified. Thanks to SGI technology, all this can be revealed while the mummy remains undisturbed and completely intact. The exhibition is the culmination of more than two years' work, which involved the mummy being CT-scanned at a London hospital and 3D laser-scanned in Scotland.

SGI specialists reassembled more than 1500 scanned images of the mummy into a single 3D dataset that can be interactively viewed and explored, using a specially developed, real-time visualization application created by SGI Professional Services. This allowed a combined team of SGI and British Museum experts to embark upon a process of discovery by subtly adjusting numerous parameters, such as density and opacity to tease out fine details hidden deep in the body.

The 112-seat SGI Reality Center immersive theatre at the British Museum was specially designed and installed by SGI Professional Services with Fakespace Systems Inc. Powering the Reality Center facility is a 12-processor SGI Onyx 350 with three InfiniteReality4 graphics subsystems, 6GB RAM, and 1,5TB of disk space. This year also marks the 10th anniversary for SGI building Reality Centers. The British Museum facility is the 669th Reality Center installed since the first 10 years ago in July 1994.

Teaming up with computer specialists Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) to develop the virtual reality solution, Fakespace designed a custom 112 seat immersive theater featuring a 12'h x 42'w curved screen along with the stereoscopic projection equipment. Wearing polarized 3D glasses, visitors can take a spectacular 20-minute virtual tour of the mummy's body where they will learn about ancient Egyptian preservation methods and rituals, as well as experience how Nesperennub would have lived. The exhibit also features the real-life mummy on display in its coffin along with numerous artifacts presented in 3D that are representative of the time period.

The immersive experience allows visitors to virtually explore the kind of tomb in which Nesperennub was buried, next to his wife, on the opposite side of the River Nile from Karnak, Egypt. Viewers are then taken inside the wrappings of the mummy and are also able to see Nesperennub's facial features completely reconstructed to give an accurate visual image of the priest. The image then morphs into a human actor and a historical reconstruction of how Nesperennub would have lived is dramatized.

Visitors to the museum are then able to witness the ancient Egyptian rituals of preserving the dead 3000 years ago, including graphic details on how Nesperennub was mummified. The experience delves into incredible details such as where incisions were made to remove organs, and makes visible amulets of carved stone ceramic and wax found on his body, all without needing to physically remove a single piece of the cartonnage case. Forensic pathologists have also contributed to the 20 minute experience, detailing health problems Nesperennub suffered and considering how he may have died. The notable British actor of stage and screen, Sir Ian McKellen, narrates the entire show.

While the original show will be a 22 minute narrated experience, the option to create more interactive sessions is being investigated. For example, interactive interludes would be added, where the show is paused for further interactive investigation, or a completely free form lecture mode is possible, where a museum expert can take the audience on a journey of discovery anywhere in the mummy at will, based upon feedback from the audience.

"We are excited to bring this revolutionary experience to the public for the first time, and hope it will fascinate visitors as much as it has fascinated us", commented Dr. John Taylor, assistant keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. "In Victorian times, Egyptian mummies were unwrapped at public spectacles, which was invasive and ultimately damaging to the mummy. We are gathering information here without disturbing the casing or cartonnage at all. Through 3D technology we can reveal so much more than the naked eye can see."

Professor David Hughes, Manager of Advanced Visualization at SGI, who has pioneered the project from the outset with Dr. Taylor, added: "This is an amazing opportunity for the public to explore a piece of history which has never before been seen in such a graphic and detailed way. We are able to recreate Nesperennub the man, and recover detailed information such as how old he was and how he was mummified. This experience is really quite unique, where technology meets archaeology and reveals the methods of another advanced technology of its time; that of the ancient Egyptians. This is a truly remarkable experience and not to be missed."

SGI is specialized in high-performance computing, visualization and storage. SGI's vision is to provide technology that enables the most significant scientific and creative breakthroughs of the 21st century. Whether it's sharing images to aid in brain surgery, finding oil more efficiently, studying global climate or enabling the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, SGI is dedicated to addressing the next class of challenges for scientific, engineering and creative users.

Fakespace Systems designs and manufactures advanced interactive visualization systems and integrates complete enterprise-wide solutions. Interactive visualization improves collaboration discovery and learning for applications in automotive, aerospace, biotechnology, education, federal government, geophysical exploration, manufacturing, scientific research, and virtual prototyping. Fakespace Systems is headquartered in Marshalltown, Iowa, USA. The company has global office locations in Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and across the USA.

The exhibition at the British Museum will run from 1 July 2004 until January of 2005.


Leslie Versweyveld

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