Around the Shikumen in 80 Clicks

To what degree can technology help save cultural heritage, endangered by encroaching development activities? The answer might be ambivalent. However, as bulldozers and cranes draw near, NYU Shanghai’s Richard Lewei Huang ‘17 created a virtual replica -- “Cardboard Shikumen”  -- of his disappearing Shikumen hometown known for its unique fusion of Western and Chinese architecture styles, to remind us that cultures and traditions might just vanish right in front our eyes without effective measures taken.

Q: In what ways has the Shikumen neighborhood changed or not changed during the past 20 years? What personal significance does the neighborhood have to you, and to its society?

As a child, I lived in a Shikumen house and I consider being a Shikumen native as an important facet of my identity. Part of the reason why I decided to start this project is that my own neighborhood, a typical Shikumen lilong (where I had lived for almost 2 decades), was scheduled for demolition in 2015. I was thinking, what can I do to save this part of my personal memory, as well as the heritage of Shikumen neighbourhoods in Shanghai? I decided to use the skills and knowledge I learned from courses in Interactive Media Arts and Global China Studies at NYU Shanghai.

Shikumen is an indispensable part of Shanghai history and culture. Its significance extends beyond the realm of architecture, as over the years, residents of Shikumen formed a unique culture and lifestyle integrated into Shanghai’s character as a city. The past 20 years have seen a plunge in the number of Shikumen houses and its residents, as rapid economic development enables more people to afford better housing, and the extensive urban renewal and infrastructure programs launched by the city government demolished a large amount of Shikumen neighbourhoods.

The government has tried to preserve some neighbourhoods with certain historical significance. However, the preserved Shikumen becomes essentially an empty shell, as its original residents are evicted for relocation while the houses themselves are converted into boutique shops and museums. Meanwhile, ordinary Shikumen neighbourhoods without much “significant history” are simply bulldozed and erased from the map of the city.


Q: Can you explain a bit about how virtual reality technology worked in your project, and the process of virtually replicating the Shikumen neighborhood?

In my project, I use virtual reality (VR) technology to present the photo and video footages of the neighbourhood. I am exploring the possibilities of building an inexpensive and user-friendly VR experience, accessible from any reasonably modern device, thus enabling more people to view, and possibly participate in the creation of VR content.

In 2014, Google debuted Cardboard, a literal cardboard device that, when used with a compatible phone, can deliver a basic virtual reality experience to the user--super accessible. I decided to make Cardboard my target device, calling my own project Cardboard Shikumen.


The project was carried out in several stages. First, I captured footage of my Shikumen neighbourhood before the bulldozers came. After some research, I assembled a camera rig comprised of 6 Xiaomi Yi cameras.  With their wide angle lenses, the Shikumen footage I captured with multiple cameras was then processed, (or stitched) into one single 360-degree panorama picture or video that can be displayed in VR.

Finally, I built a web app using mainly a-frame, a virtual reality framework by Mozilla, and other open-source libraries to present the panorama footages in a web-based virtual reality interface.


Q: In what ways is your virtual reality version of the neighborhood different from its Google Street View?

In its user interface, it is inspired by Google Street View, but Google Street View aims to provide accurate, up-to-date images of real-life locations--a navigation guidance for users. My project focuses on conserving the past through virtual reality, as well as educating users about the history of Shikumen (a brief history of Shikumen is displayed as the user navigates through the virtual reality environment).

Secondly, I tried to keep the project as inexpensive as possible, whereas Google Street View used specialised VR cameras.

Unlike Google Street View,Cardboard Shikumen was designed to be an open-source project from the very beginning--anyone interested in modifying the project or making their own virtual reality historical preservation project can download my code and do so.

Q: What has been one of the most memorable encounters or discoveries on your photo-shooting trips to the neighborhood?

To explain to the residents what I was doing was an interesting challenge as most of them are at least in their 50s and had a hard time grasping ideas and concepts such as virtual reality. However, they were able to understand that my work is about heritage protection and thus they were generally supportive. Some have asked me to either not to capture or blur their faces, which I obliged accordingly.

Q: How will the Cardboard Shikumen be presented, and to whom, once completed?

The project has already been presented in June 2015 at Xinchejian, a hackerspace in Shanghai where programmers, hackers, and artists alike present their projects. I also presented the project at Asia Pacific Virtual Reality Network (APVRN) to a community of virtual reality developers and entrepreneurs based in Asia.

In the meantime, I plan to present the project sometime in the near future to the original residents of my neighbourhood. It would be interesting for them to revisit it in an immersive fashion, as if they were actually standing there, though in reality, the old neighborhood is probably demolished.


Q: Should virtual reality technology be widely adopted to preserve cultural heritage?

Although using VR in preserving heritages has obvious benefits, I believe virtual reality technology should be applied where the destruction of the original artefacts is inevitable, as in the case of Shikumen buildings. It is important to note that a virtual reality replica of Shikumen can only function as a visual preservation of the original, but not as a replacement. There is still much more to be done to mitigate the tension between urban renewal and heritage protection in China.

Q: Do you have future plans to launch a sister project or others?

Upon returning to Shanghai, I will start another round of shooting in the same neighbourhood that is now being demolished. I am also planning to shoot other threatened Shikumen neighbourhoods in Shanghai.

I know this year there are other students who will use photogrammetry (making measurements using photographs) to visually preserve the interior of some Shikumen houses. I am glad that technologies allow for new possibilities in heritage preservation.