ROME — First Google Earth turned millions of Internet users into virtual travelers who could fly to any spot on the globe. Then its Sky feature took them to other galaxies. Now Google Earth has embraced a frontier dating back 17 centuries: ancient Rome under Constantine the Great.

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Soaring above a virtual reconstruction of the Forum and the Palatine Hill or zooming into the Colosseum to get a lion’s-eye view of the stands, Google Earth’s 400 million users will be able to explore the ancient capital as easily “as any city can be explored today,” Michael T. Jones, chief technology officer of Google Earth, said Wednesday at a news conference at Rome’s city hall.
Ancient Rome 3D, as the new feature is known, is a digital elaboration of some 7,000 buildings recreating Rome circa A.D. 320, at the height of Constantine’s empire, when more than a million inhabitants lived within the city’s Aurelian walls.
In Google Earth-speak it is a “layer” to which visitors gain access through its Gallery database of images and information. “In this case the layer is above ground and not below where it should be” from an archaeological point of view, said Bernard Frischer, the director of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
Google had planned to activate the feature on Wednesday morning, but a spokesman said there would be a short delay because of technical difficulties. By Wednesday night, however, the feature was up and running. (Web visitors in the United States can watch a video demonstration of the feature at earth.google.com/rome.)
For nearly three decades Professor Frischer has been the driving force of an effort to bring ancient Rome to virtual life. The Google Earth feature is based on his Rome Reborn 1.0, a 3-D reconstruction first developed in 1996 at the University of California, Los Angeles, and fine-tuned over the years with partners in the United States and Europe.
Of the 7,000 buildings in the 1.0 version, around 250 are extremely detailed. (Thirty-one of them are based on 1:1 scale models built at U.C.L.A.) The others are sketchier and derived from a 3-D scan of data collected from a plaster model of ancient Rome at the Museum of Roman Civilization here.
Archaeologists and scholars verified the data used to create the virtual reconstruction, although debates continue about individual buildings. “We’re happy when scholars disagree with us,” Professor Frischer said. “It makes for good scholarship.”
The Rome Reborn model went through various incarnations over the years as the technology improved. Originally it was developed to be screened in theaters for viewers wearing 3-D glasses or on powerful computers at the universities contributing to the project, rather than run on the Internet. That all changed in June 2007, when Professor Frischer presented Rome Reborn at a news conference in Rome. The next day he received a call from Google Earth.
“The poetry was good, but it was caught in a tree,” said Mr. Jones of Google Earth. “So we asked if we could help to make it better.” It took several months for Google engineers to format the data “and do Google things so that everyone can see it,” he said.
To experience Ancient Rome 3D, a user must install the Google Earth software at earth.google.com, select the Gallery folder on the left side of the screen and then click on “Ancient Rome 3D.”
Past Perfect Productions, a company that specializes in 3-D cultural heritage models, owns the global and exclusive commercial rights to Rome Reborn and collaborated with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and Google Earth on this project.
Joel Myers, Past Perfect’s chief executive, said the Roman theme had proved popular for his company. “Ancient Rome is a symbol of Western civilization, but it’s also got that fantasy element, what with gladiators, centurions and brutal or crazy emperors,” he said. He cited an audio guide that Past Perfect produced with 3-D reconstructions of the Colosseum and another it plans to release soon on the Forum.
In recent years films like “Gladiator” and the HBO series “Rome” have also stirred popular interest in the city. And on Nov. 20 “3D Rewind Rome,” a high-tech show based on the University of California simulation, is to open in a theater near the Colosseum.
Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, suggested Wednesday that the Google Earth feature could gratify tourists who are disappointed to find that the city’s ancient monuments are in ruins. “They may not be enough to involve the tourist in the experience of Roman civilization,” he said. “The public needs the hook-up with virtual reality.”
Information bubbles in the Google Earth feature provide details for more than 250 buildings, and more advanced information is also available through links to Platner and Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, Stanford’s Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project, the German Archaeological Institute catalog and many other scholarly sources
Professor Frischer said that now that Ancient Rome 3D would be available to millions, he hoped it would become a scholarly work in progress, open to changes and contributions from other scholars. “The great thing about digital technology,” he said, is that it can be updated constantly “and supports different opinions.”
Mr. Jones of Google Earth said that the company would like to present 3-D tours of other historical cities but that it was up to historical experts to provide the scholarship. “When archaeologists rise up, we’re ready to share their research with the world,” he said. “There’s no shortage of cities or civilizations that deserve to be understood in the same way.”
Meanwhile a 2.0 version of Rome Reborn is under development, and the project could expand to show Rome in different eras. “There’s always something to discover,” Professor Frischer said. He paused, then added, “Please don’t make me say it, but, after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

 

By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO (NYT, November 13, 2008)