Virtual Christmas

The Christmas story is probably one of the best known and most frequently recited stories in the world. It is not only the story of biblical expectations for the future, but also the story of the origin of our society. This year, it's becoming virtual reality in the crypt of the Mariendom in Linz and in Deep Space 8K at the Ars Electronica Center.

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Digitized via photogrammetry and restaged as an immersive, audiovisual and interactive 3D experience, many of the Cathedral’s nativity scene figures, which have been carefully restored beforehand, will create festive anticipation in the VR headsets of visitors – despite physical distance.

It is a beautiful devotional scene: A field, lined with rocks, a stable, and a grotto modelled after the original site of birth. Here, around 30 figures – already restaurated and made of lime wood, painted and partially gilded – will await the Lord’s arrival. Traditionally the orientalistic backdrop in the crypt of the cathedral remains empty during the pre-Christmas season. A dramaturgical sequence of appearances determines the gradual addition of the figures to the biblical staging. Only a few days before Christmas do the Holy Family and other famous protagonists take their positions around the crib.

However, at the moment things here still seem rather profane. The elements of the landscape are carefully cleaned by conservators with fine brushes, reglued and finely decorated with moss, lichen and bark. But instead of bright and harmonious angelic voices, an industrial vacuum cleaner reverberates through the sacred halls.

The Ars Electronica Futurelab also has quite a lot planned for today here in the crypt of Linz’ Mariendom. And since due to the pandemic only two people are allowed in the cab, the rest of the Futurelab team is arriving from across the Danube on foot.

Stefan Mittlböck-Jungwirth-Fohringer, Peter Freudling and Johannes Lugstein of Ars Electronica Futurelab were entrusted with the implementation of this ambitious digitization project in the course of a careful restoration of the nativity scene, which is over one hundred years old. It is one of the largest nativity scenes in the world. An extensive review in spring 2020 highlighted the urgent need for restoration of the crib exhibit of the Mariendom in Linz.

Since then, the up to one meter tall figures, the crib landscape and paintings have been carefully cleaned, restored, amended and preserved. The preparations for the technical setup have already been completed and today the installation of the hardware is to take place. In front of the portal of the cathedral, Ars Electronica Futurelab staff will be welcomed by Cathedral Master Clemens Pichler of the Diocese of Linz and accompanied into the Cathedral.

In the crypt there are tangled wires and a mess of boxes, but experts always know what to do and the installation can progress rapidly. Shortly after, a large screen unfolds into a projection surface and is attached to a stable metal frame.

There is not much light here in the crypt, but the projector with its enormous lens looks promising. And a little later, Windows boots with its recognisable chime – it just can’t compete with the noise of this industrial strength vacuum cleaner.

For weeks the team has worked towards this moment. Using a contactless surveying and conservation method called photogrammetry, 30 of the over 80 figures were previously scanned and digitized in a complex process in cooperation with Dominic Juchum. On the basis of countless photographs from 360 perspectives, the position and form of the objects were indirectly determined with the help of this procedure. The photographs were digitally combined and rendered into an exact three-dimensional reconstruction of the forms. Through this process, more than a hundred years after its creation, the crib by the Munich sculptor Sebastian Osterrieder was transformed into a virtual reality.

“The digitalization of theologically, culturally and art historically valuable heritage of the past enables our society to expand its possibilities of historical interpretation. It’s technology that allows us to completely rediscover the narrative in all its details.”

Stefan Mittlböck-Jungwirth-Fohringer, Key Researcher & Artist, Ars Electronica Futurelab

3D Modell “Geburt Christi”

Put on your 3D glasses, now it’s getting serious! The first tests of the application are underway and, in awe of this moment, the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s artists, researchers and developers can once again declare: The third dimension, it works! From now on, the virtual crib figures theoretically could be experienced and thoroughly studied here in the crypt of the cathedral in their many details and authentic colors from 360 different angles – if only it weren’t for the fact that there’s still one issue to be sorted out: the pandemic.

But the team is also prepared for this: The application for the presentation of the immersive 3D staging in the Deep Space 8K at the Ars Electronica Center is already set up. And here, too, the initial tests have been very successful. With Deep Space 8K, the Ars Electronica Center is offering its visitors a very special experience not found anywhere else in the world: The 16 by 9 meter wall projection, the equally large floor projection and a laser tracking system make the experience of 3D animation here something very special. In the future, the interactive nativity set will also be integrated into the presentation schedule and projected in 8K resolution for visitors to immersively experience.

For the time being, we must wait and see. But no matter how COVID-19 develops in the coming weeks, Christmas can come. For with the virtual crib, the Linz Mariendom and the Ars Electronica Futurelab are nevertheless completely in tune with the spirit of these Advent times. And with Ars Electronica Home Delivery we’ll be bringing the impressive nativity scene experience to your home:

Ars Electronica Home Delivery: Deep Space LIVE – The virtual crib at the Linz Mariendom

THU December 3 2020 – 5:00 p.m. On THU December 3 2020, the Deep Space LIVE – streamed via Ars Electronica Home Delivery – will be devoted entirely to the virtual nativity scene at the Mariendom Linz. The viewers not only have the opportunity to closely view the digitalised nativity scene figures but also to learn interesting details about different theological and art historical aspects of the nativity scene from Ing. Mag. Petra Weiss (Federal Office for Monument Protection, Department for Upper Austria) and cathedral pastor Dr. Maximilian Strasser.

In addition, Stefan Mittlböck-Jungwirth (Ars Electronica Futurelab) will provide insights into the process of digitizing the figures. The digital version of Sebastian Osterrieder’s crib ensemble will inspire visitors from all over the world with new insights into art historical heritage and create a new intercultural point of contact. Also for a younger generation, it will create a new, lively perspective on a biblical story and an old tradition. So, we invite you to a very innovative pre-Christmas season this year. For an even more authentic experience at home, we recommend turning off the heating and lighting some myrrh incense. Stay home. Stay safe. Save lifes. Merry X-mas!

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