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Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang (AR Edition)

Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang (AR Edition)

Pure Land: inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang (AR edition) is a virtual reconstruction of Cave 220, an important Tang dynasty cave of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang known for the quality of its mural paintings. Built using virtual and augmented reality technologies from a laser scan of the cave architecture and high-resolution photographs, it places visitors in the shoes of an archaeologist exploring part of one of the world’s great treasuries of Buddhist art.

The Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, also known as the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’, are a complex of almost 750 caves, 492 of which contain over 45,000 square metres of mural paintings and 2000 painted sculptures. These grottoes were hewn into the rock face by Buddhist monks as shrines, repositories and places of reflection. The largest is almost 40 metres high and home to a 30-metre Tang statue of Buddha.

Unfortunately, the Mogao Grottoes are now threatened by rising levels of humidity and carbon dioxide due to their popularity as a tourist destination. Since 1999 the Dunhuang Academy, custodian of the site, has embarked on a program to digitise the grottoes through high-resolution photography and laser scanning. It is a program that many believe is essential to keeping the caves’ cultural history alive.

The augmented-reality installation of Cave 220 facilitates the preservation of the caves by encouraging the virtual experience of the site.  Visitors enter a specially constructed room which is almost the same size as Cave 220 and displays a white wireframe of the laser scan of the cave on a black background. They use one of two iPads to scan the walls, ceiling and floor of the room. Above them, 24 infra-red cameras detect their position and a bank of computers renders their view in real time, transmitting the image to the iPad screen via WiFi. The interactivity was created using a video game engine known as Unity.

Pure Land: inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang (AR Edition) demonstrates the future of mobile media and augmented reality as a means of virtually embodying 1:1 scale cultural heritage experiences. It creates a space for the conjunction between real and virtual formations that gives transacted aesthetic expression to Dunhuang’s Buddhist art treasury of mural paintings and sculptures. Visitors to Pure Land AR immediately grasp the functionality of the iPads, drawing them to walk around the room and explore the imagery of Cave 220. Furthermore, the experience generates spontaneous discussion among these visitors, as well as ‘virtual tourism’ as people enthusiastically photograph the imagery on the iPad with their own cameras.

Pure Land: inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang (AR Edition) was created by professors Sarah Kenderdine and Jeffrey Shaw at the City University of Hong Kong in 2012, in partnership with the custodians of the Mogao Grottoes, the Dunhuang Academy. The new technical rendering of the installation Pure Land AR was developed by Professor Sarah Kenderdine at iGLAM. 


  • Project Donor: Mr Gabriel Yu (Chairman of Executive Committee of Friends of Dunhuang Hong Kong)
  • Project Conception & Direction: Professor Sarah Kenderdine (UNSW), Professor Jeffrey Shaw (CityU)
  • Art Direction, Interpretation and Script Writing: Ms Lou Jie (Dunhuang Academy)
  • Cave 220 Dataset: Mr Wu Jian (Dunhuang Academy)
  • Script Writing: Mr Chen Qi, Mr Chen Haito, Mr Li Dading (Dunhuang Academy)
  • Art Advisor: Mrs Lee Mei-Yin (Special Researcher with Dunhuang Academy, Friends of Dunhuang Hong Kong)

Project date

2012 to 2016

Funding type

Private Commission


Professor Sarah Kenderdine
Professor Jeffrey Shaw 
Dr Andrew Yip