Can Virtual Reality Save Shanghai’s Cultural Heritage?

Shanghai's iconic shikumen homes

Shanghai’s iconic shikumen homes from above

“A lot of places that are rich in Chinese history haven’t been well documented,” says Mr. Huang, a junior at NYU Shanghai. “Instead, they’ve been gentrified or demolished.”

Mr. Huang’s “Cardboard Shikumen” project is a digital copy of his neighborhood, which was slated for demolition last year. The project was built using WebVR, an experimental API that developers can use to create virtual reality applications in a web browser. This means that “Cardboard Shikumen” can launch directly in Chrome and be viewed without a VR headset or any special equipment.

Shikumen, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

Photograph of Shanghai’s Shikumen from Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center

“[The project] is a technical prototype of a virtual reality presentation software that requires little technical expertise and budget to operate,” explains Mr. Huang. By lowering the cost of producing and consuming virtual reality content, more people can participate in the virtual reality platform, he says.

“Cardboard Shikumen” feels like Google Street View, except more immersive. To move around, viewers have to click on arrows located throughout the neighborhood. Each frame has a 360 degree view, which can be rotated by moving around the smartphone or clicking and dragging a mouse. The project captures quotidian scenes from his shikumen neighborhood: an old woman resting on a wooden stool, neighbors chatting, lines of laundry drying in the sun.


The shikumen (石库门) neighborhood where Lewei Huang grew up is barely recognizable from the digital replica he created half a year ago. Sections of the neighborhood have been reduced to rubble, as bulldozers grind their way through brick walls and 20th century shikumen structures – a fusion of Western and Chinese architecture unique to Shanghai.

One of the panoramas Mr. Huang stitched together for “Cardboard Shikumen.”

One of the panoramas Mr. Huang stitched together for “Cardboard Shikumen.”



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One Reply to “Can Virtual Reality Save Shanghai’s Cultural Heritage?”

  1. The future of Shanghai’s iconic Shikumen fuels many debates about modernization of traditional houses in China. What are your thoughts about this virtual reality project?

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