Ubisoft has a long history of re-creating historic cities and ancient sites thanks to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but a new partnership has developers working on showcasing something much closer to reality. During the first Saturday of each month from now until October 25, visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art can visit “Age Old Cities: A Virtual Journey from Palmyra to Mosul,” and try out a VR experience that transports them to various sites in Palmyra, Aleppo, and Mosul. If you’re unable to attend the exhibition on the designated days, the VR portion is available for free on Steam.
Organized by the Arab World Institute, the exhibition’s sites represent some of humanity’s oldest settlements, recently destroyed or damaged by war, making them nearly impossible to visit. Age-Old Cities aims to preserve these sites for future generations through large-scale projections, digital reconstructions, and virtual reality experiences. The latter method is where Ubisoft’s expertise comes into play. Thanks to recent 3D scans and photographs of the sites by historic-preservation startup Iconem, supported by UNESCO, Ubisoft developers were able to create an immersive VR experience that transports visitors to five historic sites:
- The Souk of Aleppo (Syria): Built in the 19th century in the medieval area of Aleppo, this marketplace was intended for the Bedouins. It was destroyed by combat-related fires in 2012. (Images recorded April 2017.)
- Underground tunnels of Nabi Yunus (Mosul, Iraq): The buried vestiges of a 2,600-year-old Assyrian palace were discovered in 2014, following the destruction of the mausoleum of Nabi Yunus in Mosul. (Images recorded February 2018.)
- The Temple of Baalshamin (Palmyra, Syria): Erected north of Palmyra 2,000 years ago, this sanctuary, consecrated to the god Baalshamin, was destroyed with explosives by ISIL in 2015. (Images recorded July 2016.)
- Our Lady of the Hour Church (Mosul, Iraq): The Church of Our Lady of the Hour in Mosul was built by the Dominican Fathers in the 1870s, and was destroyed by ISIL in 2016. (Images recorded February 2018.)
- Great Mosque of al-Nuri (Mosul, Iraq): The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was the emblem of Mosul. Erected in 1170, it was destroyed in 2017 by ISIL. (Images recorded February 2018.)
As Ubisoft ventures into the realm of digital cultural heritage preservation, we spoke with SVP of New Business Development Deborah Papiernik about Ubisoft’s partnership, and the exhibition itself.
Why did Ubisoft get involved in this project?
Deborah Papiernik: As a creator of history-based virtual worlds for our videogames, Ubisoft feels concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage. For the Assassin’s Creed series, we’ve always worked with historians, archeologists, architects, and all kind of experts in the past to recreate ancient civilizations and monuments, which deeply enrich gamers’ experiences. We even developed a Discovery Tour in the latest Assassin’s Creed games that offer educational tours within these universes.
As we took interest in photogrammetry, we got in contact with Iconem, who brought their exhibition project to our attention. It felt like a natural move for Ubisoft to participate in this exhibition, and contribute to raising awareness on the situation of the Arab world’s heritage, which, by its diversity, is really everyone’s heritage. They connected us with the museum, which was convinced after trying past Ubisoft VR experiences.
Why incorporate a VR aspect into the exhibition?
DP: Virtual reality was chosen due to the very heavy immersion it provides, and the ease of access for users of all ages. With a VR headset, the visitor is transported to the heart of the monuments. No longer a spectator, they become an actor as they explore sites that are difficult to access for tourists.
VR is also a fantastic tool to create empathy. Age-Old Cities VR experience was proposed as the climax of the exhibition and it increased the engagement to the point that upon taking off the VR headset several people were holding back their tears, we people who use it to ask themselves what they can do to preserve their world heritage.
How were the sites chosen?
DP: The sites were selected for their relevance within the exhibition, the quality of the available scans, and their architectural significance. The experience shows the sites as they were at the time they were captured by Iconem.
What has been Ubisoft’s role in the exhibition?
DP: The 3D models provided by Iconem were very high-resolution. We've adapted them so that they can be displayed smoothly in a real-time engine, with several levels of detail, simplifying backgrounds while increasing the level of detail of the closest elements, such as the sculpted bas-reliefs or the grain of the stone. We arranged the lighting, to make them as realistic as possible.
Then we added life, like we do in a videogame: placing lights, special effects of dust and wind, adding movement with animated objects and small animals, and created an immersive soundscape with the feedback of people who visited the sites.
We were even able to include a monument that is now completely destroyed, the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, using archival work provided by the University of Lausanne.
“These collaborations reflect Ubisoft’s desire to continue to contribute to cultural and historic heritage preservation.”
What is the benefit of working with the photogrammetry provided by Iconem?
DP: Ubisoft had already used photogrammetry in Assassin's Creed Origins, for the creation of some landscape textures, but we had never used this kind of data in a real-time virtual-reality engine. This project allowed us to acquire new technological expertise that may one day help us make our games even more realistic.
Is Ubisoft interested in other, similar collaborations with cultural institutions?
DP: Ubisoft is, first, a creator of digital entertainment – but videogames today tend to cross into the realms of culture and education. Ubisoft created Discovery Tour for Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, which lets people visit our universes without violence, following historical guided tours. The games graphics also served to illustrate an exhibition on Egyptian queens, in Montreal Pointe-à-Callières museum, and art history lessons in Paris’ Grand Palais museum. Assassin’s Creed Unity inspired an augmented-reality escape game proposed in 2019 at the Invalides Museum in Paris.
Ubisoft is also a founding member of the Time Machine project, led by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), which aims to digitize 1,000 years of archives of Venice, before extending to other cities.
Last, but not least, we decided to extract the acclaimed 3D model of Notre-Dame de Paris from Assassin’s Creed Unity to build a VR experience of the monument, which cannot be visited anymore after it was almost destroyed by a fire in April 2019. This VR visit was showcased at UNESCO headquarters in September, and is now awaiting future museum installations.
These collaborations reflect Ubisoft’s desire to continue to contribute to cultural and historic heritage preservation.
Ubisoft has recreated many historical sites for various Assassin’s Creed games, but those prioritize fun over historical accuracy. What challenges arise when attempting to be as historically accurate as possible?
DP: The challenge is to stick to reality, instead of creating art. When you are used to creating artistic renders, it can be frustrating, but we had to stay faithful to the sites, and to the impressions felt by those who had been there to capture the images. For instance, in agreement with Iconem and the Arab World Institute, we decided to leave all the piles of debris in the Souk of Aleppo. It’s not something we’d ever do in a game, but it is what was there when the photogrammetry was taken.
The virtual reality experience shows the sites in their destroyed states; was there ever any talk about rebuilding the sites in VR?
DP: In all the sites presented in this exhibit, the photogrammetry was done after the destruction and they can only be presented in their current state. Except for one site, the Temple of BaalShamîn in Palmyra: under the direction of Patrick M. Michel, researchers from the University of Lausanne collaborated with Iconem to achieve a precise reproduction of the temple based on archaeologist Paul Collart’s archives. Ubisoft’s VR experience juxtaposes the temple’s ruins with a transparent rendering of the formerly intact monument.
Will the Age-Old Cities VR Experience be accessible outside the exhibition?
DP: The experience was conceived as a part of the Age-Old Cities exhibition, and is best experienced in this context. However, the VR portion is also available as a free download on the Steam VR store, as a way to open the experience to a wider audience, thanks to an agreement with the Arab World Institute and Iconem.