Spending a week at Angkor Wat may sound impossible for many people. Some Thais, despite living not far from Siem Reap in Cambodia, haven’t even had a chance to travel there. But technology now brings the majestic temple even closer, as you can virtually roam through Angkor’s historic temples and experience the site, structures and carvings through 360-degree digital imagery.
Angkor Wat has become the latest iconic site on Google Maps and Google Cultural Institute’s World Wonders Project, following the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and Mount Fuji.
Not everybody can afford to travel, says Google Maps product manager Manik Gupta. “For millions of people, travel is still expensive, so this project is very useful.”
However, the main benefit of Google’s World Wonders Project is for actual travel. Before their journey, people can plan and familiarise themselves with their destination.
“If you want to decide which temples you should visit in Angkor Wat, you basically can do your own research online and then see images in Street View. When you’ve finished travelling, you can always look at the images — it’s like a memory. You can share this memory with other people because you have all those images online,” Gupta said.
What’s really impressive, though, is the way the immense scale of the temple complex has been captured. Google deployed all tools available to complete the Street View image collection. They used cars to drive around the area, tripods to photograph the interiors of the temples and the Street View Trekker to hike around the complex. With over 90,000 panoramas of new images, this is one of Street View’s largest digital renderings of a Unesco World Heritage Site to date.
Street View Trekker is a wearable backpack with a camera system on top. There are 15 lenses at the top of the mast, each pointed in a different direction that enables you to create 360-degree panoramic views. The Trekker is worn by an operator and is walked through pedestrian walkways or trails on foot, automatically gathering images as it goes. The Trekker weighs approximately 15kg and is the size of a large hiking backpack.
People around the world can experience cultural and archaeological Khmer treasures in an entirely new way, by virtually visiting sites such as Bayon Temple or studying the Ramayana’s Battle Of Lanka bas relief carvings in Angkor Wat. The Angkor Archaeological Park contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating from the 9th to the 15th century. Gupta added that users can move around the site with their finger, even on their phone. The experience makes virtual visitors feel as though they are actually there.
“In that sense, it’s very important. We have to preserve the culture and make information accessible, help people to want to travel over there. We want to offer users the best opportunity to engage like this," Gupta said.
Street View is a popular feature of Google Maps, already available in 55 countries, that allows people to explore and navigate a neighbourhood through 360-degree panoramic street-level images. Google has driven the streets of Cambodia since July 2013 for future inclusion within Google Maps. The objective is to capture imagery across Cambodia over the next few years.
The imagery will be also available on the Google Cultural Institute’s World Wonders Project, where users can zoom in to view the detail of artistic carvings, such as The Churning Of The Sea Of Milk or the Battle Of Kurukshetra. Art lovers can also admire nearly 300 pieces of Angkor-related objects that already exist on the Cultural Institute, such as black and white photography of the temples from the 1940s and artists’ renderings of what life may have been like in ancient Angkor.
Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, noted that there are different benefits for different levels. For academics or professionals, such as historians or art experts, having all this content available at the click the mouse is very useful.
The second type of users are people who don’t know anything about art but are driven by curiosity. It’s possible now for armchair visitors to hop around and look at a Van Gogh paintings, then link up to see a Lord Buddha statue from a famous museum, then explore a beautiful textile piece from the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. Knowledge is accessible and cultural treasures are closer than they once were.
With Angkor Wat, Google has brought two things at once — the Street View images and also Angkor-related arts from sources all over the world.
If you type “Angkor Wat” into the Cultural Institute home page, you will find 300 different pieces from different museums around the world. You’re also able to take a tour of the first professional web exhibition by Monash University, called “Visualising Angkor”.
The “User Gallery” featured on the Cultural Institute site allows people of all types to share their personal experiences, artwork and cultural stories.
“What we are trying to do is to give people the option to get an authoritative professional explanation, but also if they want to see what users are doing, they can do that,” he said, adding that Google is trying to create access to cultural information.
“The more people start engaging and start interacting with culture online, then we will feel we are doing a good job.”
Phloeun Prim, director of Cambodian Living Arts, pointed out that he hopes to promote Cambodia and enable people to access world heritage sites like Angkor Wat, wherever they are in the world. Meanwhile Thong Khon, Cambodia’s minister of tourism, noted that projects like Google Street View give Cambodia the opportunity to share the country’s wonders with a larger audience — something that has never before been possible.
Khon hopes that this will have a positive impact in terms of tourist numbers.
Cambodia is pushing digital technology — such as the rapid growth of social media sites like Facebook — so many organisations have spread information and cultural programmes through social media platforms in an attempt to engage their audiences.
Even though broadband speed in the country is generally slow, an underwater cable project that links Cambodia and Malaysia, which is currently under construction, will hopefully multiply internet speed five times over within the next two years.
The Google Street View car at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.