3D Scan of Arctic Ice Floe: Floe A1006 in September 2011, Fram Strait, North West of Svalbard / photo: Scanlabprojects.co.uk

A hallucinogenic copy of reality

An interview with architect William Trossell by Guilherme Vieira on heritage preservation and 3D scanning

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An interview with William Trossell

An interview by Guilherme Vieira

William Trossell is an expert in capturing perfect 3D datasets of objects, buildings and landscapes for digital design and fabrication technologies. For him, the city of the future will be both physical and digital and the lines between those will become increasingly blurred. His work is a belief that the uses of augmented reality will allow us to walk around the physical city whilst also visiting the digital. This is an area where designers will focus on creating new virtual and augmented-reality experiences in the upcoming years. William shared his thoughts on heritage preservation and how we can use his expertise to preserve digitally more than memory or fragments of reality.

William Trossell is an architect with a background in digital fabrication and a unique insight into industries where 3D scanning can have a substantial impact. As the co-founder of ScanLAB Projects, that is the UK’s leading provider of large scale 3D scanning, he has been able to capture precise digital replicas of buildings, landscapes, objects and events through a series of commercial projects and research activities. He is also involved in teaching and research at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, trying to constantly explore and expand the potential of this powerful technology.
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To set a starting point for the conversation, could you define these two terms: Heritage and Preservation.

Heritage is something that has been handed down to you from a previous generation and it is something to be utilized. It is your decision as a generation to work out the best thing to do with that asset. Maybe it will be through a scan and its digital model that allows people to do something with such data, whether it will be a music video, an animation or an Oculus™ Rift environment. It is about taking it forward and making something exciting, passionate and new with it, rather than leaving it to rot. Preservation is something very different in my eyes. It is about capturing the past, seeing its layers and then choosing or freezing one moment in time which will therefore, then, suspend something within. Or preserve all its layers and try to fight the aging or the natural wearing of a material, a site or a location.

Would you say then that heritage is also something that is completely unique?

Yes. Heritage is individual to all of us. We all have a different idea about where things should go and where things have come from. So it is culturally a very rich area and quite humanistic.

ScanLAB projects utilise a range of laser scanning technologies with different capabilities, ranges, speeds and accuracies.

Do you think that 3D scanning is a way to preserve heritage or a way to preserve its memory?

A 3D scan has no volume, no surface and no weight. It purely sees the tiniest surface of something and it has no depth to it. It is a very technological response to a material. Whether you are looking at concrete, at a tissue or at a paper, they are all recorded in the same way. In this sense, you can preserve heritage only by extracting its shape and its singular view from it that preserves a moment in time. Such example is embodied in our work when we scan events where the only kind of recording of it is normally within the people that attended the show. To actually try to capture a 3D version of this entire show takes us to a different sort of realm. There is obviously the ability in this technology to become faster and it could record a fourth dimension of time and a movement much like we can with video.

Heritage is individual to all of us

It wouldn’t be possible to use the 3D scanning to capture a 3D moment like a picture by recurring to several scans in predefined places?

Currently no. And that is because it takes a minimum of 2 minutes to do a complete scan. Walking though the scene would have to be exceptionally slow for us to capture it. It’s like the photography of the 1800s where wet plates were put in the back of the camera and exposures of 4 to 5 minutes were needed for enough light to react with the silver compounds which were on the back of the negative. So the people that stood still were the first people to be photographed. We have the same kind of problem, the people that stand still are the ones we capture whereas the moving objects, at the moment, are simply just blurs or fuzz to us. Basically we will need a leap in the technology to be able to get the exposure of each scan down to seconds rather than minutes. But the high end of what we are doing, high resolution scans, each scan can take about two hours.

Are the technology advances of today going in that direction?

Yes. I think that is definitely the ambition of the big manufactures. To make it much faster, smaller and cheaper because they are chasing profits and to keep innovating ahead of their rivals is the classic thing to do.

Do you think that it is possible to use 3D scanning to preserve intangible heritage such as knowledge, artistic or cultural traditions?

No. I think that is going to be very hard. All those elements of cultural heritage will be relied on a different media, whether it will be film or audio or some other technology that is yet to be invented. I think laser scanning deals with the physical world and its ability to capture the state of objects and their positions in time.

You worked with leading art and social institutions but does UNESCO use your techniques or work as a resource in the preservation of heritage sites?

No. But I know that they use it regularly in all sorts of other jobs. The other body here in the UK is English Heritage and they do a lot of things very similar to this, whether it will be the capture of an iron bridge or the Stonehenge monuments. There was a lot of research done there recently. They uncovered additional circles of stones because the weather during the summer was so dry that the grass shrunk and since they got back and laser scanned it they can see the depression that were left on the ground.

ScanLAB Projects and Brigitte Stepputtis produced this video piece following a recent fashion shoot without cameras and using terrestrial laser scanning to capture the surface of the models, textiles and architecture with forensic precision.

Do you believe that the digital models created through scanning can be used to replace the heritage in case of permanent destruction?

Yes, and I believe that it has already been done by CyArk. They have scanned several huts in Africa and after some of them have burned down they were able to reconstruct the huts from the data. It is an interesting question, because in some ways by digitizing space we are kind of neglecting the reality. When we were going to the Arctic to scan the ice, people were worried that once we captured it, we wouldn’t need the real one anymore. In some way, it could be disposed of because we could always replicate it. On a philosophical level it is quite interesting, because then you are approaching this strange god-​like ability to control our climate, weather and physical surroundings.

Would you believe that whenever we preserve some heritage in a digital way,instead of engaging people we do the opposite?

Absolutely. I think there is always a danger that the digital is fantasized over more than the reality. It is an interesting philosophical aspect to look at it in terms of replicas and facsimiles. Like in the Valley of the Kings, in Egypt, where the facsimiles made of the tombs are able to be indistinguishable from the original and so allow people to visit them in order to not destroy the real ones. But then the user’s experience kind of waters down. Imagine a digital environment where the point cloud is such high definition that you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the difference between reality and virtual anymore. It is something that we are not close to yet, because of the resolution that we are able to capture, but maybe in 20 years’ time there would be such an indistinguishable line between the two that you wouldn’t know where you were, a sort of matrix almost.

3D scanning does a very good job freezing a moment in time, and that can be with people as well as with buildings

You are referring to the blurred line between the digital and physical city that you spoke about in some other articles?

Absolutely. And I think it is some way off in the future but before there will be a very grey area where things begin to be pretty bonkers. In animation there is something called ‘uncanny valley’ that is when people begin to create ever more realistic human animations in CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) and there is a sharp increase in what is perceived as real. Our human instinct to distinguish between CTI and what is real becomes very acute.

What do we actually lose in the experience of the digital models compared to the real and physical heritage?

I don’t think that virtual reality does a very good job in replicating where you should be with reality. I think the two are still very distinguishable, so when you place an Oculus Rift in the studio it is an additional environment but it is certainly not a replacement for the real world. There are so many aspects to our senses that fail to beat or even to compete. For us, it’s quite frustrating because we get to go visit all these physical places and then see them digitally. And although there is a little bit of déjà vu it is not quite the same as being there. Often our work is only still a screen based medium and it is quite rare that we have the opportunity to physically recreate an environment.

Future Perfect is a fictional city created in a think tank event titled Under Tomorrows Sky

Isn’t the non-​typical heritage in greater danger of disappearance than the considered heritage?

I guess it is down to governments or small NGO’s to really direct what is the cultural heritage that we should be preserving. I think that we are doing a very good job in capturing our heritage in photography. We are constantly sharing and updating information and as hard drives become better in their ability to save information we will never throw away much, digitally. In this sense, I think that we will always continue to add to this database. There was an interesting article the other day in the UK papers saying that The Sun has got a safe in their offices full of stories of the last 50 years which they deemed too controversial to publish. It is a hard piece of material archive that will live on as long as the paper can survive, but digitally things can potentially live on forever.

Do you believe that we will reach a point where we are able to preserve heritage in a faster pace than we actually lose it?

Probably yes. I think that we should be able to, eventually, with the speed of machines having a role in conserving things. You can imagine if your phone 3D scans without you needing to operate it and then through a mapping program you can track all the worlds’ phones and begin to map things. We will be walking around a scanless base and living like a second life.

Will it be the same as having a bubble around us that keeps on scanning and generating data?

Exactly. The first thing is to scan it once and then update it. That might take a while. It’s interesting to see that Google is continuously updating street view and they didn’t do it just once. And I think the same thing will happen in 3D. From the small scale we will watch things decay but on the city level, just like Google being able to update street view within 6 months, we will be looking to a 3D capture of the city on a weekly basis.

It is about human perception then?

Yes, absolutely. And usefulness. If it is not useful, no one is going to bother. But if people are interested and if there is a desire then they will continue to contribute.

How do you perceive the role of an architect in the creation of the future cities?

I think it depends very much on the culture. If you look at London, our planning laws are quite strict so things only get demolished when culturally we all agree that it can be better to remove it. So there is a kind of collective decision in removing and rebuilding it. I think that preservation plays different roles in different cultures. Perhaps in a different culture people are not so worried and they are more interested in layering and taking one down and adding another one up. It very much depends on who you are talking to.

In some ways by digitizing space we are neglecting reality

Can you imagine the idea of walking in a city that substitutes the physical for digital like in forms of holograms?

Yes. There is technology coming to us which will give us a holographic and virtual reality of the real world, like Magic Leap, which will be projecting directly onto your optic nerve, short cutting the need of your eye bulb and going directly to your brain to make things appear like they are in reality – sort of a hallucinogenic copy of reality. And that will be interesting. Looking at science fiction films is always a kind of interesting thought to where we might be in the future. Whether it is like the Minority Report (2002) or whether it will be Blade Runner (1982), such futures are possible, but they all demand an interesting kind of conversation.

What tools do you think will be used in the future to preserve heritage once 3D scanning becomes outdated?

I think that there will be an interest in seeing beneath the surface like a giant CT (Computerized Tomography) scanner that would be able to record far more information about the space than 3D scanning. Simply because it is looking at the atoms rather than simply the outer surface. We could build a building sized CT scanner and I think that will be pretty amazing.