From Mecca to the Vatican, virtual reality explores sacred sites


Click and take a close look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Click again and join thousands of pilgrims praying and circling around the cube-shaped Kaaba at Islam’s holiest site. Or strap on a helmet and enter the holy city of Jerusalem.

You’ll hear the murmur of Jewish prayers at the Western Wall or thousands of worshipers saying amen in unison at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. You can even light a virtual candle at the site where Christians believe Jesus rose from the tomb.

All without ever leaving your home.

Worshipers, tourists and visitors from around the world are increasingly joining religious activities and virtual reality pilgrimages to some of Earth’s most sacred sites. Such experiences are among many evolving spaces in the metaverse, an immersive virtual world where people can connect through avatars, which have grown in popularity during the pandemic.

“We believe virtual reality is, if you will, the new internet, the new way for people to not just look at things on screen passively and just click pictures and videos, but teleport” , said Nimrod Shanit, CEO. from HCXR and Blimey, producers of The Holy City, an immersive VR experience that allows people to visit Jerusalem’s holiest sites.

Participants “get a sense of different rituals, cultures, architectures, get a sense of the world without needing to spend tons of money on travel and contributing to global carbon emissions,” Shanit said.

Using a 360-degree camera, a lidar scanner and her background as a photojournalist, Shanit began in 2015 capturing video and photos of Christian, Islamic and Jewish religious holidays and holy sites in her Native Jerusalem. He then digitally stitched the footage and images together to create a visually immersive experience.

Virtual pilgrims can follow Orthodox clerics as they exit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the sacred fire ceremony, with candles lit by a fire that worshipers consider a divine message. They will also hear bells ringing and chants of “The Lord is risen!” in several languages. They can slip a prayer note through a crack in the Western Wall or follow in the footsteps of thousands of worshipers during Ramadan at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

To accurately render the details of Jerusalem in virtual space, the developers scanned the holy sites and a large physical model made in the 19th century which is on loan to the city’s Tower of David museum. Users can hover over this digital model leading to large-scale scans of the city entering through various gates that lead to St. James Cathedral and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Shanit, who is Jewish, and his two partners – a Muslim, a Christian – hope the holy city can foster dialogue and understanding between religions.

Many Americans — some traditionally religious, others with no religious affiliation — are increasingly communicating spiritually through virtual reality. Around the world, people can also discover sites sacred to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions through 360-degree videos, virtual maps, and 3D temples.

Experience Makkah uses 3D modeling to allow users to walk around the Kaaba building, meet praying pilgrims dressed in white terrycloth garments, learn about rituals and explore other significant sites . They include Mount Arafat, the nearby desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon nearly 1,400 years ago.

This immersive VR experience launched in 2015 but became more popular when it was updated in 2020, said Ehab Fares, managing director of digital agency BSocial, which created Experience Makkah.

In this first pandemic year, the hajj pilgrimage – which attracted around 2.5 million people a year earlier – was limited to as few as 1,000 already residing in Saudi Arabia due to restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus. “In less than a month, we had over 20,000 users from the Middle East and the rest of the world,” said Fares, whose company is based in Cairo.

Fares calls Experience Makkah a “digital good deed” with a particular focus on young people. The latest version can be explored via Google Cardboard, a low-cost cardboard attachment that turns smartphones into virtual reality viewers. “There is a younger generation that is glued to mobiles, and I wanted to reach that generation and introduce Islam through technology.”

Fares said he was pleasantly surprised by the positive response from people around the world. But he warned he was not trying to replace the hajj, which is one of the pillars of Islam.

“The intention was to give you an idea of ​​what you’ll experience on the pitch,” he said, “but it certainly doesn’t replace real-world experience.” The Sistine Chapel reopened to the public in early 2021 after closing the previous November due to the pandemic. But even though in-person access was closed, Michelangelo’s jaw-dropping frescoes could be discovered through a virtual tour on the Vatican’s website.

The 360-degree panoramic projections of basilicas and papal chapels are part of a collaboration between the Vatican and computer science students from Villanova University who travel to Rome as interns.

“This is a great opportunity for our students to get involved in the church, with religious experiences, as our computer science majors work alongside Vatican developers to create these experiences,” said Frank Klassner, professor of computing at Villanova which leads the project with The Holy See.

“And the Vatican people, dare I say, are also getting to know the next generation of worshipers and pilgrims,” ​​he said.

Faith-based virtual reality projects are also making inroads in academia.

This spring at the University of Miami, students strapped on VR headsets to watch 360-degree videos of a Haitian Voodoo ceremony, a Hindu funeral rite and a Christian baptism. They explored the Sagrada Family Basilica in Barcelona, ​​the Parthenon in Athens, and Mecca for a course titled Religion and Sacred Spaces in the Age of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence.

Matthew Rossi, a 21-year-old math and computer science student who served as a teaching assistant for the course, grew up Catholic and now counts himself among those with no religious affiliation. But the class, he said, gave him a new appreciation for religious traditions and rituals.

“You feel like you’re moving with the crowd,” Rossi said of a 360-degree video of pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca, “and I was like, ‘this is amazing.’ students also created their own virtual sacred spaces. A team fashioned an island refuge where students, through their avatars, could silently contemplate a smiling, spinning Buddha statue. Another built a stone maze leading to a place where heaven and heaven seemed to merge.

William Green, professor of religious studies and Fain Family Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Miami, said faith must involve practical actions, from prayer or song to meditation or meditation. young.

“Religion engages your mind, and it also engages your body,” Green continued.


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