In November, teaching staff and students from the Faculty of Computer Science and the Faculty of Media at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (h_da) launched a trailblazing project in the Middle East: together with Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences and the German Jordanian University in Amman, they have started to digitise Jordanian cultural sites that are thousands of years old. Apart from ancient sights in Amman, Jordan’s capital, this includes the Nabataean city of Petra, the country’s archaeological highlight. The aim is to produce digital twins of these sites and make them accessible to the public. The team has now presented its first results.
By Christina Janssen, 15.1.2023
T. E. Lawrence, the British officer and writer better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”, extolled the ancient sandstone city of Petra as the “most wonderful place in the world”. Any description was pointless, he wrote, because it “could not do justice to reality”. Around 100 years and quite a number of feature films set against precisely that wonderful backdrop later, two lecturers from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences are taking him at his word: Why describe a place when you can also show it? And in a way which is so real that its magic becomes tangible.
It was with this assignment that computer scientist Professor Bettina Harriehausen and Virtual Reality expert Professor Paul Grimm sent their students into the desert. More precisely: to the southwestern part of Jordan. A group of seven h_da students spent a week there in November 2022. In a team with fellow students from Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences and the German Jordanian University in Amman, founded in 2005, they explored ancient fortifications, Roman ruins and the sandstone city of Petra, which the Nabateans hewed into the pink rock faces 2,300 years ago. Among them was also the famous Khazne al-Firaun, “The Treasury”, a temple 40 metres high with a façade of intricately carved columns.
Technology with a broad range of applications
“The entrance to the city leads through a narrow gorge known as the Siq,” explains data science student Felix Glockengießer, describing the route to this unusual workplace. “When you suddenly find yourself in front of the buildings, it’s an incredible sight. I will never forget it.” To arrive there before the hordes of tourists, the motley group of students, heavily laden with photography equipment, set off early in the morning before sunrise. “We wanted to take our pictures without being disturbed,” says Krista Plagemann, a Bachelor’s student on the “Expanded Realities” programme. The students’ task was to produce 3D scans of buildings, individual objects and the surroundings with the help of mobile phones as well as single-lens reflex and 360-degree cameras. While Felix Glockengießer circled a column for several days with his camera, Krista Plagemann worked her way across the vast façade of a temple. In parallel, her fellow student Sebastian Kostur concentrated on surfaces – stone façades, sandy floors, walls and mosaics. These image data will be needed later when the students incorporate them into the virtual environment.
“To ensure a good final result, we had to photograph every crack,” recalls Krista Plagemann. Lighting conditions were also difficult. “In the early hours of the morning, the sun rises quickly and casts different shadows. That messes up the software.” Consequently, many hundreds of pictures are needed for the digital twin of a single column alone, for a whole temple “very big data”. To finally create experienceable 3D worlds from masses of photos, the pictures are fed one by one into commercial software, which then calculates the 3D model. The more precise and extensive the image material is, the more realistic the result. Gaps and inaccuracies have to be painstakingly rectified by hand.
The process, already used in many areas today, is called photogrammetry. “We want our students to capture the cultural sites in pictures and reproduce them correctly in a digital format. Within this project, they will learn exactly how this can be done in practice,” explains computer scientist Bettina Harriehausen. “This technology is used in the entertainment industry, in game development, in urban planning, in advertising, but also in teaching to produce realistic looking copies of real objects,” explains Paul Grimm from the Faculty of Media at h_da. “Museums use such 3D models for immersive exhibitions, the automotive industry uses them in product development. This shows that the range of applications is very broad – from engineering sciences to the entertainment industry.”
Field trip as intercultural eye-opener
The students from Darmstadt, Amman and Magdeburg have until the end of the 2022/23 winter semester to build their virtual deserts. At the present time, there is still a lot of noise on the data highway between the three universities: “Individual objects from the citadel in Amman, where we also spent time, are already finished,” says Paul Grimm, “and the students have also already made considerable progress with the treasury. But there is still a lot to do.” The working methods within the group are different; the team is colourful, multilingual, multicultural. But all those involved highlight that their personal encounters in Jordan have created a great basis for cooperation. It was an experience that has changed the German guests’ view of the Middle East: “Jordan was an eye-opener for me,” sums up Felix Glockengießer, who says that he had not done much travelling so far. But for well-travelled Paul Lakos, an Expanded Reality student, too, a whole new world opened up in the Jordanian desert: “I knew nothing about the Middle East before. Now I’ve seen what a beautiful country Jordan is, how incredibly hospitable the people are – and the food is really good!”
Once they had completed their work, the German students went on a road trip to the Red Sea – together with their Jordanian colleague Hashem, who enabled the guests to meet people off the beaten tourist track. “Hashem invited us to stay overnight with his family,” says Sebastian Kostur. “It was very interesting to get an insight into family life, to sit down to meals together and to experience the openness and kindness of the Jordanian people”. This is how acquaintances and friendships have formed that will outlast the project – despite the language barrier and some qualms prior to leaving Germany. “One evening, we were up in the citadel in Amman,” the students report. “The sun was setting, and we had a view over the whole city. A green light shone from every minaret, and then the calls to prayer began. It was simply beautiful.”
For Professor Bettina Harriehausen, this intercultural aspect is just as important as the subject matter: “As lecturers, we don’t just want to teach subject-related knowledge, we want to educate the whole person,” she says. This includes having the courage now and then to engage with a completely different culture. “For me personally, our partnership with the Middle East is particularly close to my heart. I, too, used to have a completely different image of this region. Today, I know that Jordan is a peaceful country. And that the Middle East is not ‘evil’ but very beautiful. It’s important to me that the students see and experience that.”
How the Jordanian students learned some funny German words
Bettina Harriehausen has supported the German Jordanian University, which is based on the model of German universities of applied sciences, since it was founded 18 years ago. A computer science network has meanwhile formed, in which nine German universities of applied sciences are participating. h_da and Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences are among the driving forces: “We meet several times a year. At the outset, it was about coaching our Jordanian colleagues. In the meantime, we’re mostly working together on scientific projects.” German-Jordanian collaboration currently centres on the digitisation of cultural sites – a topic funded by the German Academic Exchange Service. For obvious reasons: in neighbouring Syria, the terrorist militia “IS” destroyed world cultural heritage sites such as Palmyra, the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers and the ancient city of Aleppo. And even if such a scenario is almost inconceivable for Jordan at the present time, the destructive fury to which cultural monuments regularly fall victim in wars and conflicts shows quite plainly the fragility of these precious places.
It is, however, something else that motivates the h_da students: “We’ve now had the privilege of travelling to Jordan and experiencing these fantastic places ourselves,” says Paul Lakos. “Most other people will not have this opportunity. For them, augmented reality applications are a way to learn more about places like this.” However, it is not just the students who are learning new things on the trail of “Lawrence of Arabia” but also their lecturers. “For many, it’s an interesting learning experience that not everything has to be planned with German perfection and punctuality,” grins Paul Grimm. “At the end of the day, everything mostly works out nevertheless.”
In his new research project “Future Learning Spaces”, Grimm wants to harness augmented reality applications for the Initiative EUt+, within which h_da has joined forces with seven European universities. The two Middle East fans Harriehausen and Grimm will continue to work together across their faculties on the Jordan project. Ideally, a virtual Jordanian wonderland will be created over the coming years that is accessible for everyone. Until then, a few more teams of German students will be dispatched into the desert to bring back a rich wealth of data and experience. The same applies in reverse for their Jordanian colleagues. Some are already planning the return visit to Germany and polishing their language skills: “They’ve learnt a lot of German from us,” the h_da students are pleased to say. “Including some funny words, of course.”
Contributor: Anna Hryshchenko
Translation: Sharon Oranski