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How CyArk's Laser Scanning Preserves Priceless Architecture

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With ISIS destroying cultural heritage site across territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, wrecking antiquities in a calculated manner the United Nations has labeled "cultural cleansing," finding ways to preserve architectural sites has recently taken on a new importance and urgency. The non-profit CyArk, an Oakland, California-based organization on the cutting edge of 3D laser scanning technology, has been deeply involved in efforts to digitally preserve heritage in that region and others for more than a decade, along with groups such as the World Monument Fund and the Institute for Digital Archeology. With an ambitious goal of preserving 500 cultural heritage sites in five years, the group has been racing to fill its massive 2 petabyte database with laser scans and 3D video of many of the world's most cherished structures.

"Despite the technology being available, there are few groups proactively preserving sites for cultural preservation," says CyArk Vice President Elizabeth Lee. "One of the things we're advocating, especially with projects in Iraq, is that things can be done immediately."

The CyArk process at work on the Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq: laser scanning in the field, pulling together the scan data, and then 3D animation.

CyArk was founded in 2003, with the mission of accurately cataloging cultural heritage sites for future generations. The organization was the brainchild of Ben Kacyra, an Iraqi-American engineer who holds many of the patents for the technology, who grew up around Mosul, touring ancient sites such as Nineveh and Nimrud as a child. He initially developed the technology for civil applications, such as working in refineries and plants (scans enabled owners to create accurate blueprints and models of sprawling plants that often aren't built to the original plan). But in 2001, as Kacyra was fine-tuning his designs, the Taliban destroyed a pair of ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan, suggesting another role for advanced laser scanning technology beyond business and real estate applications.

"When we got started, it was almost a pilot project," says Lee. "What we've seen since then, as we've seen the technology go from highly specialized to being available for other specialists, is our mission has grown to include training others to use the 3D scanners for the purpose of recording cultural heritage. And the applications for what you can do with this type of data has really grown, from blueprints to now using it for 3D printing, virtual reality and other immersive experiences."

CyArk's process involves field researchers who use a suite of different devices, cameras and scanners of different dimensions, all of which could fit inside your backpack, that utilize line-of-sight technology to capture the outline and shape of a structure. When Kacyra started, he was using scanners the size of VM station wagons. The initial scans plot points every few millimeters on the structure being preserved—the machines are detailed enough to pick up chisel marks, hand-hewn beams and cracks in a wall—creating a point cloud, with an array of colors representing different depths of field, and how much light returns to the scanner. These on-site files normally measure 50 gigabytes when collected in the field. That data is then transformed into a mesh 3D model, a kind of hypercolor point cloud, which is then filled in, illustrated, and turned into a video (CyArk is partnering with the Ars Electronica Center in Austria, which has a virtual reality display that allows visitors to tour heritage sites via "virtual reality cave"). By this point, the process, which costs roughly $40,000 per site, results in a finished file for a site can be as big as three terabytes. Some models are so detailed, they've helped researchers discover hidden rooms in structures, and even make out ancient glyphs and stone carvings hidden in dark tunnels. While the process could be compared to a high-tech Xerox for architecture, the immersive aspects of the technology make the end results much more compelling, and valuable, than a mere copy.

"Once you have this information, you can take people flying through the buttresses of a cathedral if you want," Lee said.

A video created from a scan of the Tikal Temple in Guatemala.

CyArk has captured and preserved dozens of sites, and has already seen its digital preservation work pay off when physical monuments become threatened. A few years ago, the group partnered with the World Monument Fund to preserve buildings in Babylon In Iraq, before ISIS began threatening the region, and in 2009, the organization helped scan the Ugandan royal tombs at a site in Kasubi before the thatched structures caught fire. CyArk data is currently being used to help restore the sites.

"From day one, we've had an emphasis on collecting enough information to do a retrofit and repair," says Lee. "We have detailed enough plans to inform a restoration or repair."

· Photos of the Ancient City of Palmyra, the 'Pearl of the Desert' ISIS is Destroying [Curbed]
· Crowdsourced 3D Camera Project to Battle ISIS's Archeological Destruction [Curbed]
· Complete Preservation Watch archives [Curbed]