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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Heritage in the digital era

Jun. 8, 2017

Age and the elements often conspire to erode some of the world’s greatest expressions of culture. A university professor in Japan is now employing modern technology to make sure those treasures remain accessible, in some form, well into the future. NHK World’s Emiko Lenart reported on the story.

Ninna-ji Temple in Kyoto has been recognized as a World Heritage site.

It originally was built in the 9th century and serves as the main temple of Buddhism's Shingon sect.

For the first time in about 400 years, the structure is being reconditioned.

Kyoto University was permitted to document the temple’s Kannon hall before the work began.

The space is so sacred that ordinarily, only priests are allowed to enter. It has been unaltered for centuries.

Kyoto University Professor Ari Ide says the pictures on the walls are exceptional examples of art from the Edo period.

He specializes in digitally recording elements of cultural heritage.

Ide has developed technology that makes near-perfect archival records possible.

He and his team designed 3D scanners with an ultra-high resolution of 12-hundred dots per inch. The equipment is custom-made to accommodate the shape and size of each object.

In the process, they catch details that escape the human eye. That type of information enables experts to determine the materials used in the original and how an object can be faithfully reproduced.

The Ninna-ji Temple project takes full advantage of this approach.

"The Kannon-do hall had been untouched for four centuries," says Ide. "I wanted to create a copy of the entire interior before it was altered in any way."

Ide was born in Iran. He first came to Japan as an exchange student at Kyoto University.

During that time, he met and married a Japanese colleague. The couple settled in Kyoto before the Iranian Revolution. But he remained concerned about the conflicts in the Middle East and Asia. Wars and terrorism were tearing regions apart, causing cultural objects to be destroyed.

Ide wanted to develop technology that would protect the heritage of those areas.

"Four things endanger cultural objects: war, poverty, natural disaster and ignorance," he says. "The best we can do is create a digital archive to pass that heritage along to the next generation."

Governments and experts across the globe have taken notice of his efforts. In Iran, he works closely with museums to create records of traditional carpets and other works of art.

He also has embarked on a project aimed at maintaining China’s rich cultural inheritance. Ide says culture knows no boundaries. So, he is looking beyond just collecting data and creating reproductions.

Ide wants to make them more accessible. One computer animation, for example, was inspired by a famous traditional Japanese picture of a hawk.

It was produced by a member of his team. His dream is that more people will be able to experience and enjoy the artifacts in these archives.

"A digital archive is just one part of a solution," Ide says. "Just keeping the data in a computer doesn’t accomplish much. It needs to come alive in people's hands."

Engineers, curators, printing experts and a host of specialists have come together to work on Ide's project.

A national museum in Tokyo has asked him to make a reproduction installation of the temple's wall pictures for exhibition. One aspect involved examining colors.

They discussed what material was used in the vivid blue. It would have been hard to create centuries ago.

Data analysis could not provide a definitive answer. So, Ide sought advice from an expert on Japanese art.

"This color is not included in our database," Ide says. "That means it’s some sort of rare material."

"It might be a mix of two different blues," the art expert tells him.

"That’s a possibility," says Ide.

The team members share Ide’s vision.

"He can easily go beyond boundaries," says Terumi Akasaka of Kyoto University. "I respect him."

"Professor Ide is admired wherever he goes," says Koji Okumura, the CEO of Sabia Inc. "He never says something is impossible. That's the reason we’ve been able to accomplish so much."

"Professor Ide guided us on how to pass our temple's heritage on to the next generation," says Ryujun Oishi of Ninna-ji Temple. "I greatly appreciate what’s he’s done."

"More than money, what we need is wisdom," says Ide. "Drawing upon the assistance of many people, we can find ways to keep cultural heritage alive."

There’s a world of objects waiting to be preserved. Professor Ide hopes that Kyoto, with its combination of tradition and high-tech skills, will be a leader in the field of digitally archived cultural heritage.