Virtual Visita Iglesia: Visit churches, stations of the cross at home via virtual reality
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Manila-based 360 panoramic photographer and freelance journalist Fung Yu's Virtual Visita Iglesia is one way to keep the faith
April 7, 2020
Written by Denny Mata
Images by Fung Yu via Pamana.ph
While regular masses have been televised since long ago, the majority of the devotees in the Philippines, the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, still choose to attend mass in churches and chapels. Catholic masses are usually crowded and involve lots of human to human contact and sharing, from the Holy Water, the Holy Communion, and the recitation or singing of the Lord’s Prayer. Devotees would even go on a pilgrimage, or Visita Iglesia (visiting seven or fourteen churches to say prayers at each for a special intention) during the Holy Week. However, with the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic and the enhanced community quarantine officially extended to 30 April 2020, the observance of religious traditions and activities in the Philippines is encouraged to go digital or virtual. While masses are conducted via live-streaming on TV and on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, virtual reality is a convenient alternative to Visita Iglesia. Manila-based 360 panoramic photographer and freelance journalist Fung Yu‘s Virtual Visita Iglesia is one way to keep the faith.
The genesis of the Virtual Visita Iglesia
Yu told BluPrint in an email interview that the Virtual Visita Iglesia was an offshoot of his personal advocacy project, the PAMANA.ph project, which aims to document in 360-degree immersive imaging all historical and heritage sites (i.e., churches, forts, ancestral homes) in the Philippines as declared by the UNESCO World Heritage, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. Yu is known for his 360-degree high-resolution spherical panoramas in the Philippine and has been shooting 360-degree immersive imaging for almost 16 years now. He is a member of the Voyage of the Balangay project that sailed around the Philippines and Southeast Asia using replicas of the balangay boats, a member of ICOMOS Philippines and Heritage Conservation Society (HCS), a former director of the US-based International Virtual Reality Photography Association (IVRPA).
“Rappler and I initiated the “Virtual Visita Iglesia” in 2013,” Yu shares the beginning of the Virtual Visita Iglesia initiative. He says that his initial goal is to shoot and preserve heritage structures in digital format for posterity, to allow the viewers to “experience a place as if they were there.” Yu furthers, “Nothing is lost in translation, in my opinion. We simply “digitized,” in this case, the physical churches, add the compelling biblical readings and the accompanying background music(s) to make something experiential that people anywhere in the world who has an internet access can have this devotional. It just so happened like in our present pandemic crisis, where access to our places of worship is limited that make initiatives like this so much more compelling.”
Digitizing a thousand-year tradition
Creating an entire 360-degree imagery is not as easy as “let there be light.” Yu explains that he had to capture the entire 360 scene in static images and “stitch” them into a single “equirectangular projection,” which Yu described as something similar to a flat world map. When done, the projection is post-processed to enhance the entire image. Yu says that post-processing work takes about 75% of the entire time of creating a 360-degree immersive imaging. Coding, programming, and rendering into a virtual image comes after, and the final result is uploaded to the web.
“360 immersive imaging allows the viewer to experience a place as if they were there. The technology has a myriad of uses: from education, navigation (Google Streetview), heritage conservation, training, among others. Although travel is readily more accessible, there are still sectors like people with disability, students in far-flung provinces that can readily benefit from this tech. We now have virtual reality (VR makes extensive use of immersive imaging in a generated environment) such as Google cardboard, Oculus Rift, and many similar devices that can virtually transport a viewer onto a new experience,” says when asked about how he makes the virtual experience as compelling as the real thing.
Since 2013, Yu has created two versions of the Virtual Visita Iglesia: one with 14 churches, another with 20 churches and chapels. “Virtual Visita Iglesia was built in HTML5 and is compatible with desktop computers as well as all mobile and tablets running either Android or iOS,” says Yu.
Presently, the pamana.ph website and the CBCP Media are hosting both versions of the Virtual Visita Iglesia. Version 1.0 is also accessible on YouTube as a 360 video:
According to Yu, the CBCP Media office provided the access to photograph the various churches under its auspices; Rappler provided the audio readings, voiced by Paterno Esmaquel II, for the Stations of the Cross; and the background music for each church are from the album “Vespers,” courtesy of Jesuit Communications.
“Most of the featured churches are either Spanish colonial churches, declared as NCT (National Cultural Treasures) or just happened to be geographic in location (westernmost, northernmost, etc.), or just of curious happenstance (chapel on top of a fort, chapel made of cartwheels, etc.),” adds Yu.
When asked about whether future versions of the Virtual Visita Iglesia will have Filipino narrations and subtitles for people with hearing impairment, Yu answers, “We can certainly consider these. Tagalog (or other vernaculars) can easily be implemented, we just need someone to voice and record them. As for subtitles, I may need to do some research on its implementations.”