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Online 3-D project let users explore Forbidden City

Rishi Patel had an epiphany when he saw "Toy Story" more than a decade ago.

He has long been interested in merging science and art - he graduated with a physics degree from the University of Georgia and enjoyed making clay models as a child - and the Pixar movie drove the point home. "When I saw that, I really saw the potential for 3-D," he said.

Now a designer at IBM Corp., Patel headed a 12-member team that recently finished an ambitious two-year project - a virtual re-creation of China's Forbidden City that opened to the public last week. In the online world that resembles Second Life and other multiplayer video games, users will be able to create characters and explore the city, talking with other people and learning more about Chinese history.

Online character interaction is not new, and gamers have been teaming up to explore fantasy environments for years. But virtual worlds have now been dragged into the mainstream for social networking and cultural outreach.

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