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1 Billion Pixel Digital Camera System Used in Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang

The statues and frescoes of Buddhist deities at Mogao Grottoes are being digitized to preserve their images for future generations.

The Buddhist deities represented in the frescoes and statues at Mogao Grottoes will no doubt be pleased to learn that Dunhuang Academy is making significant progress toward digitizing their pictures and statues, thereby ensuring their future and allowing more people to view them.

The caves were discovered in the early 1990s by Europeans, though they were first dug in AD 366 and have been a place of Buddhist worship since then. They are the principal attraction of Dunhuang, a small city on the Silk Road in West China's Gansu province.


Inevitably, however, the frescoes are fading away due to the passage of time, environmental degradation and human activity.

Every day in late summer, thousands of tourists from all over the world come to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site to admire the inspired art works.

Since most of the caves were initially designed for domestic use, they are generally smaller than 25 square meters. Carbon dioxide exhaled by the legions of visitors is disturbing the temperature and moisture balance of the caves, which is causing discoloration and damaging the frescoes and statues made of earth, wood, straw and mineral pigments.

Other factors causing the art works to be damaged include the sandy environment, wind, floods, rain and occasional earthquakes.

"We hope the grottoes will last forever, but they are changing every minute," says Fan Jinshi, curator of Dunhuang Academy, which was established in the early 1940s,

"If we create digital images of these works and store them appropriately the hope is they could last forever."

Fan came up with the idea in the late 1980s, and since then the academy has been working with various museums and universities, and other organizations, both at home and abroad, to realize the project.

From 1998 to 2006, with support from Northwestern University and funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a private foundation based in the United States, the academy successfully digitized all the frescoes of 22 caves.

In 2006, when a digital center was established, the academy started digitizing the grottoes independently.

"Digitization in those days mostly meant taking two-dimensional photos of the frescoes," says Sun Zhijun, deputy director of the digital center, adding they started using three-dimensional technology in 2008.


In addition, the academy and Wuhan University have experimented using laser scanning to position and map the frescoes to form three-dimensional images. The results so far have been promising.

Digitization of the statues in their niches, however, proved difficult.

Unlike frescoes, the niches formed for the statues are not flat surfaces and using a traditional camera it is not possible to get a picture where all the elements are in focus.

The breakthrough came after a camera was made by Microsoft Research Asia in 2011 that is custom made for photographing the Mogao Grottoes. It is called the Apsara, after the grottoes' famous "flying fairy" paintings.

The creation of Apsara is part of Microsoft Research Asia's e-Heritage program, which has funded more than 10 research proposals over the past several years.

When shooting objects with complicated depth variations, Apsara can capture many pictures of the same object using different focuses, and then by a process called "focus-stacking", software compiles the images so everything in the final picture is in focus.

It turns out the Aspara is also better at photographing frescoes, as the wall surfaces are not perfectly flat either.

The images produced combine a large format lens and a digital sensor to generate images more than 1 gigapixel (1,000 megapixels) large (commercial digital cameras are capable of producing images less than 160 megapixels).

The Aspara also allows a contrast ratio greater than 1:3,000,000, which is 300 times better than the best displays available today.

That is to say, although the picture is two-dimensional, it is so detailed it looks three-dimensional.

Even better, the camera is no larger than a washing machine and doesn't require specialized lighting conditions.

It takes about 10 minutes to take a picture of a small niche and statue, and a few hours for a mid-sized niche.

"With Apsara we can finally take high-quality digital photos of the niches. It has also improved our work efficiency," Sun says.

"We are hoping we can take high-quality photos of another 60 caves in the following two years."

Extended Reading: Top 5 Endangered Heritage Sites

There are lots of endangered open-air heritage sites in the world. Most of them are facing very serious situation of the destruction of natural, especially the acid rain. With the birth of apsara camera, at least we can save some image data in case of the complete destruction of these sites in the future.

1. Leshan Giant Buddha, Mount Emei (China, Buddhist)

Towering above the sheer river gorges of China’s Sichuan province, Mount Emei, one of the “Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China”, represents the main seat of Chinese Buddhism. It is home to the country's first Buddhist temple, built in the 1st century C.E., and contains numerous other temples, monasteries and religious shrines, including the 8th century Leshan Giant Buddha. This Tang Dynasty-era masterpiece is the world's largest Buddhist statue, reaching an awe-inspiring 71 meters in height and is 28 meters in width. Carved out of a face of a sandstone cliff facing Mount Emei, the Leshan Giant Buddha is surrounded by spectacularly lush and breathtaking subtropical and subalpine forests, and rests atop the confluence of three major rivers, the Minjiang, Dadu, and Qingyi. This site is a place of invaluable religious, artistic and natural significance.


The Leshan Buddha has fallen victim to pollution emanating from unbridled development in the region. In this case, the culprit has been determined to be the growing number of coal fired power plants located near the Giant Buddha, specifically, the toxic gases that their smokestacks spew into the air; these eventually return to the earth as acid rain. Over time, the Buddha's nose has turned black and the curls of his hair have begun to fall from his head. The local government has shut down several factories and power plants in close proximity to the Leshan Giant Buddha, which has stopped the blackening of his face from soot; however, acid rain continues to compromise the structural integrity of this masterpiece. The Leshan Giant Buddha, which was designed carefully to survive millennia of floods and earthquakes, is now at high risk of rapid deterioration from the unbridled pace of industrial development in western China.

2. Acropolis of Athens (Greece, Ancient Greek)

While there are many Acropolises in Greece, it is the Acropolis of Athens that is, without question, the most quintessentially important monument that carries the name; indeed, when historians refer to simply “the Acropolis”, it is the one in Athens that is being referenced. Located atop a flat rock rising 150 meters above the city of Athens, its three hectares of standing monuments from the Classic Periclean period (460-430 BCE) include the Parthenon, the Propylea, and the Erechtheum, as well as a few earlier Mycenean edifices such as the Cyclopean Circuit Wall that helped to defend the Acropolis from numerous invasions over the centuries. As the foundational center for Golden Age Athens and its way of thought, the Parthenon is widely considered to be the crucible of democracy and Western culture as we know it.


In recent decades, as Greece has experienced substantial economic expansion and development, pollutants and heavy vehicle emissions from the booming modern city of Athens have contributed to acid rain in the region. The monumental and sculptural stone of choice for the ancient Greeks, marble, is highly susceptible to heavy surface degradation from even low levels of acid rain. The Parthenon’s magnificent marble relief frieze panels, for instance, have been chemically transformed by acid rain into soft gypsum. As details are lost and the chemical transformation soaks deeper into the marble on these vital monuments, pieces of them have begun to crack and fall off, with structural collapse a possibility in the not-so-distant future. Further complicating the situation is the seismically-active nature of the region, as earthquakes would have a far greater effect on marble constructions that have slowly transformed into gypsum than with unaltered marble.
Source: china culture
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