Hacking into a Lost World

Apr 20, 2017

Somewhere in the at-risk ruins of Khirbat en-Nahas in the Faynan region of southern Jordan lie untold stories of copper mining and smelting industries from the time of David and Solomon and the Edomite kings. Stories that, until now, could only be told in words, maps and photographs. Thanks to UC San Diego computer science, engineering and archaeology students who teamed up for the world’s first Cyber-Archaeology Virtual-Reality Hackathon, the story of King Solomon’s copper mines now exists in virtual reality.

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UC San Diego computer science and archaeology
undergraduate students partnered for the world's first cyber-
archeology hackathon. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San
Diego Publications

The marriage of archaeology, computer science, engineering, and the natural sciences, cyber-archaeology enlists the help of technology to safeguard the past for future generations. During the event, which ran from April 7 to 9, undergraduate students were given access to “virtual remains” from at-risk archaeological sites excavated by UC San Diego archaeology teams. The students faced the challenge of weaving this digital data, over the course of a weekend, into an engaging virtual reality experience that would help draw more people to the stories and lessons that history has to tell.

The hackathon was hosted by the Virtual Reality (VR) Club at UC San Diego in partnership with the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability, which is housed in UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute.

“This is the first time something like this has been done,” said Connor Smith, third year computer science major, president of the VR Club and the event’s organizer. “Virtual reality is a multidisciplinary field, and a great medium for preserving the past. We wanted to bring together the subject matter experts, cognitive scientists, and engineers that could bring these stories to life.”

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Screenshot from the #1 prize winning VR app

The winning project, called “Little Connor and the Ore of the Covenant,” allows users to interact with, and take part in, the process of copper production in the Iron Age by placing them in a virtual reality recreation of mines linked to Khirbat en-Nahas (Arabic for ‘Ruins of Copper’) and immersing them in the different stages of copper production. The site dates to the 10th century BC, the time of ancient Hebrew kings David and his son, Solomon. The user is placed in a copper mine and gets to experience a visually stimulating simulation with guidance from a friendly AI named Connor. Then, the user has the opportunity to work on a Bronze Age bellows-powered furnace. Finally, the user gets to give the fruits of their labor to a 'virtual' King Solomon.

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Christian Gutierrez

“Our goals with this project were to tell a story that would resonate with our users as well as explore new interaction paradigms that could potentially increase engagement and retention within the experience,” said Christian Gutierrez, a former computer science major who recently switched to cognitive science with an emphasis on human-computer interaction.

Gutierrez, a junior, is a member of the winning team, along with computer science sophomore Chen Liu, religion senior Connor Shade, and sophomore Zhuoqun Xi, who has not yet declared a major.

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Second prize went to the team that developed  
"Excavation of Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir" in
Faynan, Jordan.

Other CSE students also walked away winners in the VR Hackathon. Computer science sophomore Ruoyu Xu and fellow students Chua Zong Ming, Kevin Lee and Liang Yining took second place with their excavation of the Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir in Faynan. Viewers can navigate to three dig sites and retrieve images and information on artifacts found at each site.

The prize for third place went to computer science and math senior Rushil Reddy and teammates from neuroscience, cognitive science and urban studies. Their "VR Story of an Archaeological Excavation" explores a "unique juxtaposition of current and past at the ancient copper mines of Khirbat en-Nahas," according to the team's final report.

The three top teams shared $2,200 in prizes, and the winning VR apps are available online through the GitHub repository.

As part of the hackathon, students had access to personal Virtual Reality Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets, as well as VR-ready computers in UC San Diego’s new Virtual Reality Lab in the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

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Testing a cyber-archaeology reconstruction of a dig
site in Jordan on head-mounted display

According to Thomas Levy, distinguished professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology & Sustainability at UC San Diego, the students could choose digital data assets from five UC San Diego archaeology excavation sites in Jordan, Greece and Guatemala. Of those they chose two: Iron Age (ca. 1200 - 900 BC) Khirbat en-Nahas — a massive copper production site from the time of David and Solomon and the Edomite kings and Khirbat Nuqayb al-Asaymir (ca. 1050 - 1400 AD) — a Middle Islamic (Medieval) copper production site that emerged when the Crusaders controlled the coast of Israel and Pope Innocent III forbade the import of copper and other metals to the Arabs.

Both sites are in the Faynan copper ore zone of southern Jordan where Levy directs a long-term study with his Jordanian colleague Mohammad Najjar. Anthropology graduate students Matt Howland, Brady Liss and Ian Jones had joined Levy in Jordan to carry out the actual excavations of the sites used in the hackathon.

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Third-place VR application made good use of a 
computer model of Khirbat en-Nahas developed 
for a NOVA documentary on the original project led
by professor Tom Levy.

Students given access to a wealth of raw digital data, including 3D models of the entire excavation sites shot from helium balloon platforms by Levy’s team. They also were provided with terrestrial laser scans, 3D models of rooms, features and artifacts, digital photographs of thousands of artifacts, and 3D models provided by NOVA Television, which produced a documentary about the UC San Diego team’s research in Jordan called ”Quest for Solomon’s Mines.“

For Gutierrez, the hackathon was a dream come true. “During my childhood, I was captivated by dinosaurs and the origins of humankind. I dreamt of growing up and becoming an archaeologist someday. After discovering how virtual reality can help advance archaeology, I’m definitely going to explore the field of cyber-archaeology even further."

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The students had 36 hours to weave digital data
from archaeological digs by UC San Diego teams
into an interactive virtual reality experience.

All of the teams received cash prizes, donated in part by the Geisel Library, the San Diego chapter of the Explorers Club, the Norma Kershaw Family Foundation, the Potamianos Family, and the Center for Cyber-Archaeology & Sustainability.

The winning teams will have their projects featured on the large-scale immersive VR platform at the Geisel Library CAVEkiosk and have a chance to undergo further development by the Center for Cyber-Archaeology & Sustainability. .

The Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability was established as part of At-Risk World Heritage and the Digital Humanities, a cyber-archaeology project awarded a $1.06 million, two-year UC President’s Research Catalyst Award from the University of California (UC) Office of the President to a consortium of archaeologists and information technologists on four UC campuses: UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Merced.