FEATURE — Spring 2008

After bringing Egypt to life in “Eternal Egypt” at eternalegypt.org, John Tolva, M.A. ’96 (English literature), and his team at IBM now are working on “The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time,” where virtual visitors will be able to explore a 3-D digital replica of the Ming and Qing emperors’ Beijing home. A launch date is set for June 2008.

A Digital Character

Leading IBM’s cultural strategy and programs initiatives, alumnus John Tolva and his team create virtual worlds, where cities, museums, and other exhibits come to life online for global education—and showcase the company’s expertise in the process.

By Rick Skwiot

Thanks to the work of Washington University alumnus John Tolva we’ll all soon be able to do the “Forbidden”—at least virtually. That is, visit China’s Forbidden City online, interacting with real tour guides or scripted avatars (digital characters) and viewing 3-D dramatizations of historical events there.

Tolva, IBM’s global program manager for cultural strategy and programs, and his multidisciplinary Chicago-based IBM cultural heritage team construct virtual cities, museums, and other interactive worlds for educational and cultural institutions around the globe as part of the high-tech corporation’s philanthropic efforts.

“The Forbidden City project is akin to ‘Second Life,’” Tolva says. (“Second Life” is the popular Internet-based virtual 3-D world where participants assume digital identities, interact, network, and even do business.)

Likewise, in “The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time,” slated to launch in June 2008, virtual visitors will be able to assume roles and participate in the historic life of the enclave via a 3-D digital replica of the Ming and Qing emperors’ Beijing home, now being constructed by Tolva’s team in conjunction with IBM Chinese staffers and the Palace Museum. The virtual Forbidden City will consist of some 800 buildings where online visitors, in the guise of, say, a soldier, peasant, or courtier, can move about the vast quarters interacting with other avatars.

Tolva recently traveled to China with a History Channel crew as technical adviser for a TV program on the Forbidden City due to air in May. And his work as an IBM cultural heritage program manager and project manager enables others around the globe to travel virtually to all sorts of faraway places:

• King Tut’s tomb as it was when rediscovered in 1922 (eternalegypt.org) and other significant Egyptian sites. “Eternal Egypt,” a project developed in collaboration with the Egyptian government, allows online visitors to immerse themselves in 5,000 years of Egyptian history and culture via a library, museum, multimedia presentations, webcams, animations—virtual recreations of environments thousands of years ago; zoomable pictures of 2,781 artifacts that can be rotated and seen from any angle; and 360-degree, 3-D trips to Giza, Luxor, Alexandria, and other locales. In the process of creating “Eternal Egypt,” Tolva’s team developed the first Arabic text-to-speech technology.

• The Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia (hermitagemuseum.org), a site developed in conjunction with museum officials there. Virtual visitors to the six buildings on the River Neva, including the czars’ Winter Palace, can view some 5,000 masterpieces through a searchable database and enjoy panoramic vistas of the museum’s rooms. Also, at a virtual academy, they can study Russian history, ancient Rome, Biblical subjects, and more.

• Virtual exhibits and collections from the yet-to-be-built Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History & Culture (nmaahc.si.edu), which will not open in reality until December 2015. Incorporated into the site is a “Share Your Memory” project that invites visitors to contribute family photos, histories, and stories online, adding them to the NMAAHC Memory Book, building “a memory base,” in Tolva’s words, of the African-American experience. Exhibits include presentations on noted African-Americans, the civil rights movement, music, and culture. The site also features educational resources for teachers, students, and parents.

Developed in collaboration with the Egyptian government, “Eternal Egypt” allows online visitors to experience 5,000 years of Egyptian history. (Courtesy Images)

Yet, Tolva might not have achieved any of this had he not been a Renaissance man—a student of English Renaissance literature—in the Washington University Department of English Ph.D. program.

“I wouldn’t have this job without my humanities background,” says Tolva, who in the mid-1990s aspired to be an English professor, studying and writing about the advent of the printing press and its impact on Renaissance literature.

“But then the Internet caught fire,” Tolva says, “and I started writing about it.” Its coming, he believes, was as historically significant as that of the printing press.

“It was a monumental change that democratized writing, problemized copyrights, and allowed mass distribution, all with the fluidity of the pre-printing press days of multi-authored pieces copied by hand and augmented by each copier,” he says.

But writing about new media was not enough for Tolva. He wanted to create it as well.

So, with the blessing of the Department of English in Arts & Sciences, the Oak Brook, Illinois, native left Washington University with an M.A. in English literature and headed for Atlanta and Georgia Tech’s School of Information Design and Technology. There he earned a Master of Science degree and landed a job with IBM creating webcasts for live sports events such as Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup, and the Sydney Olympics. But just six months into the job, the Hermitage Museum project came up at IBM.

He recalls how he got put in charge of it: “They said, ‘Give it to Tolva. He likes books.’” That award-winning endeavor led to work as project manager on the “Eternal Egypt” site and ultimately to his present position.

The diverse team of designers and technologists he now heads “unites psychology, design, and art,” says Tolva, in creating interactive educational tools for global audiences. That team, like Tolva himself, embodies both technologic and humanities training.

“IBM saw that if you fill every slot with computer science majors, you’re going to have problems,” says Tolva, who interfaces with designers to create his virtual worlds. “I’m using technology, but I’m not an engineer. I don’t write code all day.”

Part of IBM’s corporate philanthropic initiatives, the Cultural Heritage Program donates technology and services to global educational institutions, largely. However, those strategic initiatives—selected with an eye to both market geography and technology—showcase the company’s expertise to millions or even billions of people, as in China, with its 1.3 billion potential customers.

“We create education and training applications in real-world research labs,” Tolva says, “generating assets the business can use.” Dozens of IBM patents have come out of his group’s work, according to Tolva.

Tolva has been called a pioneer in his field but asserts that he is merely part of a pioneering effort. “Not too many people are doing high-tech with heritage,” he says.

However, he’s looking to pioneer new digital realms in the future.

“The seamless overlap between the physical world and the virtual world interests me,” Tolva says, “where real-world experience is augmented by that virtual world. That’s something I’d like to tackle.”

That includes what he calls “more socially geared projects” that capitalize on people’s social networks and that span cultures and languages to promote understanding.

“How can we solve social problems using computers and the virtual world?” is a question emerging on a global scale, Tolva says. It’s a question he hopes to help answer using virtual social networking and automatic translation worldwide.

Rick Skwiot is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.