Art And Culture

3D Laser Scanner Makes Haunting Works of Art

3D Laser Scanner Makes Haunting Works of Art3D Laser Scanner Makes Haunting Works of Art

Two historians on a mission to preserve historic structures in Ethiopia inadvertently turned a cutting-edge 3D scanning device into a tool for creating works of art.

Lidar technology uses pulses of laser light to map the contours of 3D surfaces and structures and it “reveals every dip, ditch and rise.” It shows the full size of boulders, the depth of canyons. Some lidar technologies can see through foliage, and have been used to hunt for lost cities buried in the jungle.

When Charles Matz and Jonathan Michael Dillon went to Ethiopia to take 3D scans of the city’s historic structures, they ended up also scanning images of the people who live there today. The results are beautiful and haunting representations of the people living in this historic city, reports

The city of Harar, Ethiopia, is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and is considered the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Beit-ul-Moqqadas. The city contains many historic structures, such as the five gates of Harar that once served as entrances to its different neighborhoods. But the gates were built out of mud brick in the 1500s, and today are crumbling, along with many other pieces of the city’s historic architecture.

While it would take a small fortune to physically preserve or restore the city’s crumbling structures, Matz and Dillon wanted to at least preserve them digitally.

The team worked with the regional governorate on a project to scan many of the city’s structures with lidar. “You can explore the virtual model on the computer — move around in it, walk around in it,” Matz said.

  History Into Art

“Harar is off the beaten track and in a remote part of eastern Ethiopia,” Matz said. “It is a market crossroads in an agricultural region. It is ancient still in its mannerism and exchanges.” The areas of Harar visited by Matz and Dillon often hosted markets where people were selling food and goods out of stalls, or off blankets on the ground.

In the images that the team captured, the people are blurry and often look as though they were sketched with vertical pencil lines — their shapes are apparent, but their features are lost. Each lidar scan takes about 9 seconds, and two to three scans are needed to get a 3D map.

Harar is a colorful city: the buildings are painted in bright blues, while the women wear vibrantly colored fabric in yellows, reds and purples. But in the lidar images, these bright colors stand out against smooth, unnaturally black backgrounds. In the final images, it looks as though the city sits on the edge of an abyss.

One particularly striking image shows a boy against a pitch-black background, dragging a stick in the dirt. His clothes are captured in brilliant detail by the lidar system — even the texture of the fabric is apparent. The boy told Matz and Dillon he was an orphan. “We were told that many young boys travel in groups to look for agrarian, farm hand work far from their birthplaces and that many came from the conflict zone as their parents may have been killed.” The boy’s story adds a “thematic message” to the image. “I think that thematic message is what makes this “art,” rather than simply a piece of the scientific study,” Matz said.

  Future Artistic Tools

The lidar images of Harar will preserve the city’s infrastructure, but Matz says eventually he’d like to see a full 3D replication of the city available online for people who want to explore the area but can’t travel there in person.

“We’re interested in providing virtual walk-throughs or access to works of art without having to actually visit the space,” Matz said. “So, for example, many of these World Heritage Sites are inaccessible or very hard to get to. We’re interested in recording them and making them available as public domain so people can experience what these places are like on the computer.”