Microsoft HoloLens brings 300-year-old 3D model to life and offers new view of French landmark

A visitor at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs in Paris uses Microsoft HoloLens to get a mixed reality experience around a 3D relief map of the landmark Mont-Saint-Michel. (Microsoft Photo)

The historic island commune of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, is a stunning visual display, with its medieval monastery rising up out of the sea. Four hours away in Paris, the Musée des Plans-Reliefs offers its own captivating look at the landmark with a meticulously handcrafted 300-year-old relief map.

Now the museum is partnering with Microsoft to wow visitors and take them further into the look and feel and story of Mont-Saint-Michel through the use of mixed reality and the software giant’s HoloLens technology.

Microsoft shared the news Thursday in three episodes (below) of its “Today in Technology” series.

As one of France’s most recognizable landmarks, Mont-Saint-Michel holds significant cultural and historic value. It has held strategic fortifications since the 8th century AD. Musée des Plans-Reliefs is home to more than 100 3D relief maps — advanced tools which Microsoft President Brad Smith called “a technological marvel” of their time.

The collection was originally created for Napoleon and Louis XIV, who would use them for military purposes to see how a city could be besieged or defended. They were a closely guarded state secret because at the time it was unheard of to be able to see cities from the sky.

Smith used to live near the museum in the 1990s and would visit regularly with his family, according to Microsoft. He helped shepherd the idea to apply mixed reality technology to the Mont-Saint-Michel map, partnering with Emmanuel Starcky, the director of the museum. The vision became a reality in 11 months.

“We’ve taken this extraordinary piece of French technology, of history and culture, and using new technology I think we are helping people learn about it in completely new ways,” Smith said in one of the videos during an event in Paris. “In ways that are entertaining, that will be fun for children and that will enable people to see their world in a manner that wasn’t possible before.”

The hope is to attract a new generation of museum goers through technology.

Microsoft worked with two French companies, HoloForge Interactive and Iconem, to fill in important gaps for a digitally savvy audience via the use of artificial intelligence and mixed reality. To create a “digital twin” of the real monument, it had to be captured from every angle.

Visitors now get to see the origins and evolution of Mont-Saint-Michel displayed around the physical model. They can explore points of interest, see details invisible to the naked eye, and be virtually transported to the historical site as it stands today in Normandy, Microsoft said.

“It’s all about what a museum can be, in terms of educating people, and you learn so much,” Smith said as he was shown in a video circling the Mont-Saint-Michel model.

A museum visitor with HoloLens, picturing a hologram imposed over the real model of Mont Saint-Michel. (Microsoft, HoloForge Interactive Photo)

Even the administrator of the real site was impressed by what he saw through HoloLens.

“We often talk about experiencing something, and I just had a real experience, at once virtual, digital, but at the same time I would say aesthetic and historical,” Xavier Bailly said. “A dialogue starts almost immediately between the model as we see it today in this Musée des Plans-Reliefs, but also the universe that it is linked to — that is to say Mont-Saint-Michel.”

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