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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 03-39 - April 4, 2003

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 David Hart

 (703) 292-8070

Program contact:

 Barbara Fossum

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Visitors to Experience "Virtual Monticello" at New Orleans Museum of Art Exhibition
Computer graphics researchers to provide "virtual reality windows" into the past

ARLINGTON, VA.—Visitors to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) this spring and summer will have a chance to peek in the windows of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home a thousand miles away in Virginia, thanks to University of North Carolina and University of Virginia computer graphics researchers who have devised a way to capture and display three-dimensional scans of Monticello's rooms.

As part of the exhibition "Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France," which runs April 12 through August 31 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, NOMA has constructed a façade of Monticello at nine-tenths scale for which the researchers, led by Anselmo Lastra and Lars Nyland at North Carolina and David Luebke at Virginia, have provided "virtual reality windows." Their work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent government agency that supports basic research in all fields of science and engineering.

"After Jefferson finished his terms as president [in 1809] and retired to Monticello, tourists of the day would make the journey to Monticello and gawk in the windows to get a look at Jefferson," Lastra said. NOMA visitors will therefore experience Monticello in much the same way as those long-ago tourists.

The team used a laser-scanner with a video camera and rangefinder to scan several of Monticello's rooms. Capturing the full 3-D experience requires dozens of room scans from different angles. All of the scans—at 100 megabytes of data per scan—are aligned with one another to form a single, 3-D model of the room. Finally, the display system renders views of the 3-D scene in real time. The researchers' eventual goal for their technology is to make the model acquisition process fast, inexpensive and automatic.

NOMA is creating a 55-foot-wide red brick façade of Monticello's west portico for the "virtual window" display. Two windows, each roughly four feet wide by five feet high, in the façade will offer the view into Jefferson's library. The façade's west portico door will also be used as an entry to the Jefferson section of the exhibition.

At NOMA, visitors will be ushered past windows of Monticello's library and given polarized glasses for viewing the stereoscopic display. In each group, one visitor will wear glasses that include a head-tracking device, and the virtual windows will show that visitor's view into the room. Leaning in and looking left will show more of the library's left side, for example. In the virtual library, visitors will see an easy chair that, according to tradition, Jefferson used as vice president; later in the exhibition, visitors can see the actual chair on display.

The connection between art and science was made when NOMA curators contacted Monticello for artifacts to include in the exhibition. The conversation turned to Lastra's and Luebke's team, which had just visited Monticello to scan some rooms. The scientists are working to develop methods of modeling real-world 3-D environments for applications ranging from historical preservation to forensic science.

In forensic science today, for example, investigators build crime-scene models by hand, taking individual measurements with tape measures or handheld laser rangefinders and entering the results into a computer manually. Models are constructed using 3-D modeling software, and effectively visualizing the models remains difficult.

In addition to automating a laborious process, "this technology has several advantages for crime-scene investigation," Lastra said. "This would give investigators, first, more realism and, second, more veracity, since a human is not making the measurements." The research project includes law enforcement community representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, in addition to the collaboration with NOMA.

"The virtual windows into Monticello will provide our visitors something they couldn't experience in New Orleans any other way," said E. John Bullard, the Montine McDaniel Freeman director of NOMA. "We brought furniture and antiques from Monticello, but this new technology has given us a way to display a portion of Jefferson's home, his 'essay in architecture.' This demonstrates how laser scanning can add a new dimension to art museums' exhibitions of architecture and historical environments."


UNC Image-Based Rendering:
Scanning Monticello:
Jefferson's America, Napoleon's France:

Principal Investigators: Anselmo Lastra, UNC, (919) 962-1958,
David Luebke, UVA, (434) 924-1021,

a 3D data set of Jefferson's library
This image shows a 3D data set of Jefferson's library at Monticello. More than 100 million range samples were acquired with a DeltaSphere-3000 3D scene digitizer along with 1,000 color photos in two evenings during the summer of 2000. The 3D measurements are colored with data from the photos, and then the underlying model is simplified. At the top of the image, the colored model is shown. At the bottom, the color has been turned off, showing the simplified 3D model.
Credit: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The University of Virginia.
Select image for larger version
(Size: 757KB) , or download a high-resolution TIFF version of image (7.74MB)

Ben Cummings (left) and Nathaniel Williams
Ben Cummings (left) and Nathaniel Williams prepare to take a scan with the DeltaSphere-3000 3D scene digitizer (on tripod) inside Monticello.
Credit: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and The University of Virginia.
Select image for larger version
(Size: 855KB) , or download a high-resolution TIFF version of image (8.65MB)

3D scan of a room at Monticello
The technology used to capture 3D scans of the rooms at Monticello may also one day be applied in crime scene investigation, as demonstrated in this staged scenario. In addition to automating a laborious process, the technology would give crime scene reconstructions more realism and more veracity, since a human is not making the measurements. The researchers are collaborating with representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
Credit: Crime scene model courtesy of 3rdTech, Inc.
Select image for larger version
(Size: 565KB) , or download a high-resolution TIFF version of image (7.74MB)

Larger versions (Total Size: 2,177KB) of all images from this document

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