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Friday, November 6, 2009

Lasers and Landmarks

We were fortunate to read a recent article in the NYT about efforts of experts from the Glasgow School of Art to use lasers to make 3D models of landmarks. The system works as follows, a laser mounted to a box scans surfaces of structures and objects, and created a 3D "cloud" of data. These billions of bits of digital information can then be reconstituted into 3D models.

One upcoming project being funded by the National Parks Service, is an effort to scan Mount Rushmore. As an aside, many experts have recognized how it is only a matter of time until this quintessential Amemrican landmark succumbs to the twin ravages of weather and time. By scanning it now, however, we will always have a record of how it once appeared.

What really stood out in this article, was not the article itself so much, but a quote accompanying slides of screen captures from several different models. One of these slides had this quote as follows: "The new cutting edge of laser technology offers a means to preserve and restore whole cities exactly as they once were. It promises a world kept as if in amber."

Never was it the intention of preservationists to preserve everything in situ or to restore everything back to a fixed time. This is likely not the intention of preservationists, archeologists, and others involved in the scanning. Where this work introduces some intriguing possibilities is in the area of how we go about interpreting and visually presenting what no longer exists. Rather than holding on to every building, or removing buildings not conforming to a period of other buildings in an area, the 3D models when superimposed over present physical fabric of a place could help create the illusion of places as they once were. One opportunity this raises is instead of creating costly reproductions or replicas of what has been lost, technology allows us to recreate places and spatial relationships as they existed at far less cost.

One of the leading firms doing work like this on the state-side is Cyark. This non-profit has a fairly ambitious agenda to document heritage sites in danger of being lost. A more detailed description of their methodology and in-depth treatment of their projects is available here: http://archive.cyark.org/about. This work presents some interesting possibilities though may have some pitfalls.

What if a standard arises where if we have suitable digital models, that people feel it is no longer to retain physical places that are obsolete, older buildings that are in the way of so-called "progress", etc.? Ethics which guide preservation and archeological practice today, will likely need to be applied to the burgeoning field of digital documentation. Still, the promise and potential does appear to outweigh the challenges. The real tipping point with work like this will occur like the revolution in the digital photography field - innovations in technology increased performances while pressing prices down. Once this happens, it is certain that the virtual representations of actual places will gain greater acceptance and appreciation in the culture-at-large.

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