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Explore holy places in VR, from Mecca to the Vatican

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The Associated Press

Associated Press

Luis Andres Henao

Click up close to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and take your breath away. Click again to join thousands of pilgrims who circle and pray around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. Or put on your headset and enter the Holy City of Jerusalem.

There you can hear the whispers of Jewish prayers at the Western Wall and thousands of worshipers chanting Amen in unison at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. You can even light virtual candles where Christians believe Jesus rose from the tomb.

All without leaving home.

Worshipers, tourists and visitors from all over the world are increasingly participating in virtual reality religious activities and pilgrimages to the most sacred places on earth. Experiences like this are one of many evolving spaces in the metaverse—the immersive virtual worlds where people can connect via avatars—and are growing in popularity during the pandemic.

"Virtual reality is the new internet, a new way for people to actually teleport, rather than passively looking at things on a screen or clicking on pictures and videos. Nimrod Shanit, CEO of Blimey and HCXR, producer of The Holy City, an immersive VR experience that allows people to visit Jerusalem's most sacred sites, said.

Participants were asked to “feel different rituals, cultures and architecture, feel the world without actually spending a lot of money on travel, and feel the world’s carbon footprint. contribute to,” Shanit said.

Using a 360-degree camera, lidar, his scanner, and training as a photojournalist, Shanit made his 2015 visit to a Christian, Muslim, and Jewish community in his native Jerusalem. I started taking videos and photos of religious festivals and holy places. She then digitally stitched footage and images together to create a visually immersive experience.

Virtual pilgrims can follow the lit candles that believers see as sacred messages as Orthodox clergy emerge from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the torch ceremony . They will also hear the bells ringing and chanting, "The Lord is Risen." in multiple languages. They can tuck prayer notes into the crevices of the Wailing Wall or follow in the footsteps of thousands of worshipers during Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

To accurately render the details of Jerusalem in virtual space, the developer used the Holy Land and his 19th-century building, which is on loan at the city's Tower of David Museum. I scanned a large physical model. Users hover over this digital model to view a full her scale scan of the city entered through the various gates leading to St. James' Cathedral, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa. can be connected. mosque.

Shanit, a Jew, and his two partners, one a Muslim, the other a Christian, hope that the Holy City will foster dialogue and understanding between faiths. I'm in.

Many Americans, some traditionally religious and others non-religious, are increasingly communicating spiritually through their virtual reality. People around the world can also experience sacred sites of Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions through 360-degree videos, virtual maps and 3D temples.

Experience Makkah uses 3D modeling to allow users to tour around the Kaaba, meet prayer pilgrims dressed in white terrycloth, and experience rituals. We are making it possible for you to learn and explore other important landmarks. These include Mount Arafat, a nearby desert hill where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon some 1,400 years ago.

This immersive VR experience was launched in his 2015, but became the most popular when it was updated for 2020, said digital creator Experience Makkah, chief executive of his agency BSocial. He is responsible, said Ehab Fares.

In its first pandemic year, restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus meant that the Hajj pilgrimage - which had been visited by about 2.5 million people the previous year - was already living in Saudi Arabia, where only a few he Limited to 1,000 people.

"In less than a month he has acquired over 20,000 users from the Middle East and beyond," said the Cairo-based company's says Fares.

Fairs calls Experience his Macca a "digital good deed" with a particular focus on youth. The latest version can be found on his Google Cardboard, a low-cost cardboard attachment that turns your smartphone into a virtual reality viewer. “There is a younger generation that is obsessed with mobile, and I wanted to reach that generation and use technology to introduce them to Islam.” He said he was pleasantly surprised by the positive response from But he cautioned that he is not trying to substitute one of the pillars of Islam, the Hajj.

"It was meant to give you a feel for the experience on the ground, but not to replace the actual experience," he said.

The Sistine Chapel will open to the public in early 2021 after being closed last November due to the pandemic. But even with direct access blocked, Michelangelo's breathtaking frescoes could still be experienced through a virtual tour on the Vatican's website.

His 360-degree panoramic projections of the Cathedral and Papal Chapel are part of a collaboration with his Science students at Vatican and Computers at Vilanova University, who travel to Rome as an intern.

"Our computer science majors are working with Vatican developers to create these experiences, so it's a great opportunity for students to join a church and have a religious experience." ' said his computer expert Frank Klassner. Professor of Science at the University of Villanova, who runs a project with the Holy See.

"And the people of the Vatican are also getting to know the next generation of parishioners and pilgrims," ​​he said.

Faith-based VR projects are also making their way into academia.

This spring, students at the University of Miami put on VR headsets to watch his 360-degree videos of a Haitian voodoo ceremony, a Hindu funeral, and a Christian baptism. They explored Barcelona's Sagrada Family His Basilica, Athens' Parthenon, and Mecca for a course called Religion and Sacred Spaces in the Age of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence.

Matthew Rossi, 21, majored in his Science in Mathematics and Computers and was his assistant in teaching this course. He was raised Catholic and is now agnostic. However, he said the class gave him a new appreciation for religious traditions and rituals.

"I feel like I'm moving with the crowd," says Rossi of his 360-degree video of a pilgrim's tour of the Kaaba in Mecca. rice field.

Students also created their own virtual sacred space. One team created an island retreat where students, via avatars, could quietly contemplate a smiling, rotating Buddha statue. Another built a stony labyrinth that leads to a place where sky and heaven seem to merge.

William Green, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami and Fain's Family Endowed Chair of Jewish Studies, believes that faith includes concrete actions, from prayer and singing to meditation and fasting. said to be necessary.

"Religion moves the mind, it moves the body," continued Greene. "You can't do that in 2D, but you can in the Metaverse."


AP's Religious Coverage, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., and The Conversation US supported through collaboration with AP is solely responsible for this content.