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3-D imagery brings exhibit to life

From The Times-Picayune
March 31, 2003

By Lynne Jensen

It's a voyeuristic adventure inventors are calling a first: a 3-D peek into Thomas Jefferson's library at Monticello, viewed through a window 1,000 miles away inside the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The magical history tour will be part of the exhibition "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France," which will run April 12 through Aug. 31 as part of the bicentennial celebration of the Louisiana Purchase.

Considering Jefferson's love of education, architecture and science, "We'd like to think he would like it," said David Luebke, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Virginia. The virtual reality project is the brainchild of Luebke and computer science associate professors Anselmo Lastra and Lars Nyland of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Though perhaps not as alluring as a 3-D scan of Empress Josephine Bonaparte's boudoir, peering into Jefferson's library should be one of the ultimate experiences at the exhibition, which is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors. First Lady Laura Bush is the honorary chairwoman of the exhibition.

Viewers will walk up to a 55-foot-wide facade of Monticello's West Portico, built on the museum's first floor, and peer into one of two windows, backed by screens, where the 3-D library scanning is projected.

The full-scale imagery is brought to life by using an "off-the-shelf computer," two computer projectors that shine images for each eye, polarized goggles that allow a stereo view and a magnetic tracker, Luebke said.

Three-dimensional laser scanning has been used on a limited basis, mainly for works of art, Luebke said. He and his fellow researchers think this is the first time it's been married to virtual-reality technology to create a "virtual tourism" experience of historical architecture for viewing in a museum setting.

One feature of the "through the window" experience is that the interior scene changes as the viewer, wearing the tracker goggles, moves from left to right or moves closer to the window. Moving closer to the window exposes more of the library, for example.

"With this tracker, the sense is that as you move, the objects in the scene move correctly," Luebke said. "That is what makes it look much more real than a 3-D movie."

Visitors also will be able to compare some of the 3-D objects with the real thing. Jefferson's red leather library chair will be on display along with a rotating book stand.

The creation of the 3-D library was "fortuitous timing," Luebke said. The three professors had begun scanning the rooms at Monticello when caretakers there got a call from NOMA asking about contributions to the exhibition.

"So, we started talking," Luebke said.

The 3-D exhibit cost about $30,000 and is being paid for with money from a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Lastra said.

Grant participants include Monticello, NOMA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Luebke said.

As the cost of 3-D scanning decreases with time, it will be used to re-create crime scenes for courtroom viewing and for archiving historic architecture and important places, such as Monticello, for future generations to appreciate, he said.

It also can be used in "the office of the future" to create "the ultimate teleconference," Luebke said.

By using 3-D scanning, images of participants who are outside the conference room can be shown on a white wall "to convey the sensation of sitting across the desk" from them, he said.

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Lynne Jensen can be reached at ljensen@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3310.


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