With the aid of a brand-new virtual reality app titled My Virtual Armenia, anyone in possession of a smartphone can tour the sites at their own pace, taking in the scenery with a panoramic “Magic Window” view and listening to audio commentary from regional experts.

The app (freely downloadable on iOS and Android devices) is the product of deep collaboration between the Smithsonian, the world heritage preservation organization CyArk, and the educational app developer FarBridge. Attendees of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which is celebrating the rich culture of Armenia through live performances and craft demonstrations on the National Mall, are invited to use the app to enhance their experience. But users all over the world will be able to explore the wonders of Noravank and the Areni caves in high-resolution digital form even after the festival.

CyArk — a stylized shortening of “cyber archive”—has been in the business of immortalizing heritage sites digitally since their founding in 2003. The creator of the organization, Iraqi expat Ben Kacyra, is a civil engineer by trade, one who pioneered in the field of portable laser scanning. During the chaos of the second Iraq War, Kacyra found he had both the will to see Iraqi heritage protected from destruction at the hands of terrorists and the technological means to help make that happen.

Since those early days, Kacyra’s team has traveled to dozens of sites all over the globe, painstakingly scanning them from a multitude of locations and angles to generate comprehensive digital point maps of what exactly they look like. Kacyra has modeled sites ranging from Ancient Thebes and Corinth to Chichén Itzá and Mount Rushmore.

As the 2018 Folklife Festival (which just got underway this Wednesday) drew near, Smithsonian and CyArk personnel worked intensively to scan the Noravank monastery and Areni-1 caves and convert them into usable packets of data. Also integral to the laser-scanning campaign were the Armenian Ministry of Culture and passionate high school-age volunteers from the acclaimed Armenian extracurricular program Tumo.

Having acquired their raw data, CyArk and the Smithsonian were faced with the challenge of developing a user-friendly app. For this portion of the process, CyArk enlisted the help of a young app development company called FarBridge. FarBridge had lent a hand to CyArk before, assembling the Oculus virtual reality experience Masterworks: Journey Through History using CyArk point maps of Mount Rushmore, Thai temples, a Peruvian archaeological dig, and more.

“This is the first app that we’ve done with this new Magic Window feature, where you don’t need any virtual reality-specific headset. It can run on any smartphone, and there’s two billion of those all over the world.” (Patrick Curry, FarBridge CEO)

Source: Ryan C. Smith, SMITHSONIAN, link to the article.