Web app Giza 3D offers virtual tour of Pyramids

Permits online visitors to virtually explore Egypt’s Pyramids

Dassault Systemes
THE PLATEAU: Egypt’s Giza Plateau, as rendered by Dassault Systemes Web app Giza 3D.

The Pyramids at Giza are among the world’s great archeological treasures, and one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions. A visit there, though, generally involves an expensive flight to Cairo, a jarring cab ride across the congested metropolis, and baking under the Egyptian sun.

But now, exploring Giza can be done from anywhere there is an Internet connection.

Giza 3D, a free interactive Web app being launched Tuesday, will offer the virtual explorer an animated passage through millennia-old tunnels and tombs. It combines the feel of a video game - think Tomb Raider - with the curated accuracy of a museum exhibit, to create a three-dimensional video odyssey deep inside the ancient structures.

The culmination of a two-year collaboration between Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Dassault Systemes, the French design software company that has its US headquarters in Waltham, Giza 3D will be unveiled at an event at the MFA on Tuesday night.

The virtual tour is also being used in Harvard University’s 3-D virtual reality theater, where Egyptology students can be immersed in the simulation. Just like the virtual motion rides at amusement parks, the digital tour through Giza can leave viewers a bit queasy as it takes quick twists and turns into the pyramid corridors.

“It’s dizzying,’’ said Maggie Geoga, a 21-year-old Harvard senior, although she added it is worth the discomfort. “This is the next best thing’’ to being there, she said.

Dassault software is typically used to design and manufacture products for carmakers, architects, and consumer electronic companies. But in 2005, the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin began working with the company on a 3-D simulation illustrating the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the three at Giza.

“We said that if we can use 3-D technology to help industry, we could use it to recreate archeology,’’ said Mehdi Tayoubi, vice president of digital and experiential strategy for Dassault.

The company’s work on that project caught the attention of Peter Der Manuelian, a prominent Egyptologist, in 2008. At the time, Manuelian was director of the MFA’s Giza Archives Project, which digitized the archeological records from a joint MFA and Harvard University excavation that ran from 1902 to 1947.

In 2010, the MFA and Dassault decided to create a virtual exhibit from the collection of more than 85,000 digitized photographs, maps, and drawings.

Giza 3D allows virtual explorers to roam around the Giza Plateau and dive deep under the Pyramids. It includes hundreds of tombs that users can explore, historically accurate hieroglyphics to examine, and the ability to take in 360-degree views of the Pyramids or their interiors. As users navigate through the chambers, they can click on items to get historical information, or see copies of excavation documents. Some of the recreations are based on photos from the Harvard-MFA excavation, showing the same bones, pieces of wooden coffins, and stone formations it found.

Ten software engineers built Giza 3D, Tayoubi said - often a laborious process. The application includes at least 30 objects that have been painstaking rebuilt in 3-D, including stone vessels and statues that can be examined in detail. Just building a single ornate chair in the virtual environment, he said, could take a month.

At Harvard, where Manuelian is now a professor of Egyptology, the project has become a regular part of his classes. He takes his students on guided 3-D tours through Giza using a joystick controller.

“We can visit rooms and go above ground and below ground. We can go into burial grounds and rotate around in the bedrock underground. That’s something no human can do,’’ Manuelian said. “It gives [students] a more rounded picture that no PowerPoint lecture can bring across.’’

But it will never be a true substitute for seeing the Pyramids with your own eyes.

“Being out there with the heat and the desert sun, it’s a real tactile sense of the Giza experience,’’ Manuelian said. “The real world still can’t be beat.’’

Building a virtual pyramid

Dassault Systemes used advanced three-dimensional imaging to build the Giza experience, a virtual and interactive tour of the Pyramids. Giza 3D includes hundreds of tombs that include detailed decorative walls, burial sites, and artifacts that software engineers recreated using some of the 80,000 digitized items — photos, maps, and drawings — in the Giza Archives Project at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The project used QuickTime Virtual Reality technology to include 1,300 panoramic views inside the program so users have 360-degree views inside and outside the tombs.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at