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昭西陵 · Zhao-xi Ling x AR

Historical Preservation of Zhao-xi Ling(the mausoleum of Empress Xiaozhuang) of the Qing Dynasty based on Augmented Reality


This project is a part of Zhao-xi Ling preservation and reconstruction research project in Tianjin University that lasted from 2011-2019. We aimed to exhibit the historical research achievements to the public in an interactive and innovative way by the application of AR and VR. It is also the first attempt on a historical preservation exhibition based on Google ARCore in VR Lab in Tianjin University.

My Role

Research, Ideation, User Flow Design, Usability Test,

Prototyping (My full Responsibility)

Visual Design (My full Responsibility)

AR Development (My full Responsibility)


Xinyu Kang (Zhao-xi Ling x VR)

Dongzu Li (Historical Research)

Xinjia Liu (Historical Research)

Xiangrui Meng (Historical Research)


ARCore, Unity3D, Revit, SketchUp, Photoshop, Xiaomi Mix2S as the test device


Sinan Yuan (VR/AR)

Peng Cao (Architectural History)


First Prize, National Design Awards for Outstanding Heritage Conservation Student Projects 2019


Timeline & Work Flow


, 2019

, 2019

The Challenge

Zhaoxi-ling of Qing Dynasty, is the mausoleum of Empress Xiaozhuang. The unique historical changes in construction have created its distinct architectural characteristics and historical values. However, due to natural damage and a lack of preservation during the more than three hundred years since it was built, most pavilions of Zhaoxi-ling exist as historical ruins today. This project aims to exhibit the preservation and reconstruction research achievements of Zhao-xi Ling in a creative way.

In this project, I learned about the existing historical documents and research deliverables to schedule the contents for the AR visualization firstly. The AR visualization and experience prototype of Zhaoxi-ling consists of 6 augmented scenes in the 5 selected areas in Zhaoxi-ling and each AR scene is designed separately according to the exhibition contents. Then I worked on the scenes in Unity3D with Google ARCore SDK for Unity and 2 of the 6 scenes have already been built and tested in the real-world environment.


Why Cultural Heritage x AR?

Current rehabilitation exhibition lacks interaction and involvement.

Nowadays, most of the heritage preservation projects display cultural relics in museums, or to build museums near the ruins. People learn about the historical knowledge about the cultural relics  by reading the museum's display contents. For large-scale outdoor heritage sites, like Acropolis in Athens, people tend to establish a historical site park for visitors. However, for most people—especially those who have no background in architecture, archeology, or any other relevant professional—even if the restored pictures and texts of the site are next to the site, it is still hard to imagine what it looks like when the original building exists. So the traditional display methods are limited in creating interactive and immersed exhibition experience.


After careful consideration and comparison across different methods of rehabilitation, we chose Augmented Reality to focus on, as multiple people show interests in AR technologies. Combining heritage preservation with AR, we aim to achieve creative, perceptive and educational visiting experience when we preserve the world’s architectural treasures.

Historical Research 

The historical ruins image of Zhao-xi Ling


Why is Zhao-xi Ling unique?

Historical Value of Zhao-xi Ling

  • Zhao-xi Ling was the first mausoleum built for an empress in the Qing Dynasty.

  • The historical identity of Empress Xiaozhuang, who was buried in Zhao-xi Ling, makes the site unique.

  • The history of construction of Zhao-xi Ling created a special group pattern of the pavilions.

  • The Long-en Temple is the only temple with yellow glazed cymbal on double eaves in the Qing mausoleums.

  • The Long-en Temple in Zhao-xi Ling inherited and optimized the "Xiaoling-style" timber structure system.

  • Crafts of bucket arches in the Long-en Temple embodies the characteristics in the early Qing Dynasty.

  • The style of the Gate of Coloured Glaze of Zhao-xi Ling is higher than that of any other emperors and empresses in Qing Dynasty except for Ding-dong Ling in the late Qing Dynasty.

  • Column form of the Long-en Gate of Zhao-xi Ling is unique among the other mausoleums of the Qing Dynasty.

  • Zhao-xi Ling is the first mausoleum in Qing Dynasty to build The Sacred Way Tablet Pavilion, which turned out to be the biggest one among the other mausoleums of the Qing Dynasty.


Currently visitors are not accessible to the architectural treasures.

How might we provide interactive and immersive AR experience for the rehabilitation exhibition?


Find appropriate AR methods for preservation exhibition optimization.

Historical Contents

AR Methods

  • The historical identity of Empress Xiaozhuang

  • The construction of this unique and important site and the special group pattern of the pavilions

  • The timber structure and construction of Long-en Temple

  • The crafts of bucket arches in the Long-en Temple 

  • The style of the Gate of Coloured Glaze of Zhao-xi Ling  

  • The speciality of the Sacred Way Tablet Pavilion 

  • The historical documents (like Yangshi Lei Charts)

  • Information floating in the scene

  • Animation showing the construction process activated by Augmented Image

  • Animation of construction right on the ruins

  • Video activated by a floating button

  • Comprason drawings floating in the scene

  • A button to activate digital construction models

  • Historical images floating in the scene

Iteration & User Flow 

Zhao-xi Ling AR Experience Guide

real site map xiao.jpg


On June 5, 2019, Zhao-xi Ling Historical Rehabilitation Conference was held in situ. Experts in Architectural Preservation gathered together to discuss our proposal for restoration and exhibition in the future. A temporary exhibition was built there to show the research achievements. Notably, I showed the AR scenes I developed  to experts in person in the original environment of Zhao-xi Ling. Fortunately, the practical feasibility of this project has been acknowledged by the experts.

I worked out 2 of the 6 scenes in Unity3D with Goolge ARCore SDK for Unity and created 2 short videos to show how the scenes work in the real-world environment. As my bachelor thesis project, I gave a 15-minute presentation to faculty, students and professionals in Tianjin design community.  I also designed a temporary AR exhibition as a part of my graduate exhibition to create immersed AR experience for students who haven't been to Zhao-xi Ling in person. 


Besides, as my bachelor thesis in Tianjin University, I wrote a paper discussing the crucial steps of building AR experiences with ARCore, such as scene positioning, interaction design and animation tools, and points out the pain points of AR applications, which is to present the correct occlusion scene between real-world environment and visual objects.

Need Finding
Historical Research
AR Experience Guide

1. The Sacred Way Tablet Pavilion 神道碑亭

The first scene of AR experience in Zhao-xi Ling starts at 30 meters south to the Sacred Way Tablet Pavilion. There will be four buttons in the shape of a random ink mark of Chinese calligraphy floating in the scene as soon as users activate the whole scene. On pointing at either button, users are able to learn an aspect of historical information, including the introduction to the Sacred Way Tablet Pavilions in the mausoleum system in Qing Dynasty, the story and unique identity of Empress Xiaozhuang and the reconstruction digital model of the Sacred Way Tablet Pavilion of Zhao-xi Ling.


Interaction buttons at Lone-en Gate and the shown historical photos at current view.

2. The Long-en Gate 隆恩门

Due to the actual rehabilitation plan of Zhao-xi Ling, which is to reconstruct the most important pavilions in several phases, the Long-en Gate would be the first rebuilt building. The gates at east and west sides would be the entrance and exit of the relic area while the middle gate would be closed for the most time because of cultural reasons. 

The animation showing the site selection and construction process of Zhao-xi Ling would be activated on scanning the Augmented Image lying on the exhibition stand in front of the middle gate.


Rendering of the reconstructed Lone-en Gate and Augmented Image Exhibition there.

Screen record of the Augmented Image scene at the Long-en Gate.

3. The Gate of Coloured Glaze 琉璃花门

The unique features of the Gate of Coloured Glaze would be shown in this scene. Drawings showing the unique location of the Gate of Coloured Glaze of Zhao-xi Ling compared with other mausoleums in Qing Dynasty would be floating in the scene. Besides, the photos of the Gate of Coloured Glaze of other mausoleums in Qing Dynasty could appear if users touch the buttons, indicating that the style of the the Gate of Coloured Glaze of Zhao-xi Ling is higher than that in other mausoleums.


Collage of AR scene at the Gate of Coloured Glaze.

4. Sceneform at the Long-en Temple area 隆恩殿前

Entering the biggest relic area of Zhao-xi Ling, users could first find the location with specific signs to activate the Sceneform. Floating in the scene would be numerous buttons in the shape of random ink marks of Chinese calligraphy. On touching the buttons, the exhibition contents would appear in the scene. Users can touch the buttons freely, thereby exploring the historical world of Zhao-xi Ling and creating their own AR experience by their preference while visiting the site.

This scene has been developed and tested in situ. See the screenshots below or the video at the beginning to learn about the actual experience in the relic area!


Touch the sign to activate and place the scene at the right location.

Users could even walk into the reconstruction Long-en Temple and experience the difference between the digital models and the cultural relics in front of them.

Scanning the ground to find a plane.

Buttons floating in the scene.

The crafts of making bucket arches.

Buttons floating in the scene.

Touch the button the activate the reconstruction model of the Long-en Temple.

Animation showing the construction process of the timber structure system of the Long-en Temple.

Reconstructed digital model in situ.

Model of the West-side House.

Touch other buttons to show information about dimentions on Yangshi Lei Charts in the real scene.

The colored painting.

Learn about what bucket arches with coloured paintings look like by activating the buttons.

5. The Fang Cheng Area 方城明楼

When users finally climb up to the Fang Cheng Area, they would enjoy the nice view to reflect the relic areas. They could activate the scene showing the "Ping-ge" Plan of Zhao-xi Ling, which is also a part of the Yangshi Lei Charts. As they walk around the Bao Ding, they could use the app to learn the orientation of other mausoleums in Qing Dong Ling and learn more about Qing Dong Ling.


Collage of AR scene showing "Ping-ge" plan of Zhao-xi Ling.

明楼2 xiaoxiao.jpg

Collage of AR scene showing the orientation of other mausoleums in Qing Dong Ling.

AR Development

AR Development

Adjust row materials and digital models for exhibition.

Before the AR development really happened, I worked jointly with other architectural history students to dig further about the crafts of bucket arches and colour paintings on the timber elements. We had several site visits to Zhao-xi Ling and researched on the real cultural relics there. Then we revised digital reconstruction models together for development.


We also worked on the reconstruction research of coloured paintings on the Long-en Temple by taking the references of Xiao-dong Ling, which was built at similar time with Zhao-xi Ling.

下檐平身科斗拱 色彩版.jpg

Develop in Unity3D with ARCore SDK package.

The interaction between users and the AR experience scenes is achieved by buttons in the shape of random ink marks of traditional Chinese calligraphy. All the buttons look similar with different characters indicating the contents of the scenes on the button. We encourage users to activate whatever the buttons they like, creating their own unique AR experience by their own explorations. 

Among the several features of Google ARCore, Augmented Image and Sceneform are applied in the development. I tried to use Augmented Image as a way of tracking the correct location for the scenes at first. But my result of the attempts showed that tracking a big scene with a large number of models was not easy work. The image could locate the scene but the device might not be good enough to test if it could really work well. Then I turned to Sceneform for a second try. Although Sceneform cannot help people locate the scene at the right place accurately each time, it is a reliable method to locate the scene. Therefore, Sceneform was finally applied in the development of the scene at the Long-en Temple relic area.

Animations in Unity3D were used to show the information of several construction processes in Zhao-xi Ling as well. The activation of the animations was controlled by the buttons.


Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

This is the project that brought me to the field of user experience design. By developing this AR experience project, I have to understand the users' expectations of AR experience, the historical researchers' presenting needs and current AR technology availability. Seeking for the balance among the several stakeholders, I came to understand that what the digital product really is might not be the most important thing. To my mind, how to provide accessible approaches for users with different backgrounds and ages to the recondite historical information with the help of AR is the mission with top priority. 

Imagination can take you anywhere until it meets reality. During the first half of this project, I expected high on AR experience results. I am eager to design a continuous AR experience that show case everything I learned and am amzaed at of the historical research. However, when I learned to use ARCore SDK in Unity3D and really started developing, I came to realize the limits set by the huge amount of model elements and the chock points of AR. Moreover, buttons and more powerful methods to locate AR scenes at the site are needed, too. I got to learn a bit C# for the scripts in Unity3D. The development experience required eagerness, patience and persistence.

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