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A Cheshire Cat moment


Distorted people. Click for  a larger version.

This eerie picture is from one of my favorite memories of working at Monticello, when we were just starting the Monticello Explorer in late 2003.

To clarify, it’s not an actual photograph, in the sense that most of us are familiar.  It’s an image created from laser scans taken for us by a company based in Pittsburgh, PA, called Quantapoint. It’s less a record of light than a registering of distances and reflectivity of surfaces. There are a couple of features of the image that underscore this difference.

First, this image was taken during the day.  But it’s not a negative.  If it were, our faces would be as black as the sky.  So, it’s not accepting light from external sources in the way a typical camera does. 

Second, this is from a panoramic image.  But it’s not created by taking multiple shots and stitching them together.  Instead, a laser is being reflected by a mirror inside a cylinder that is spinning at a very high speed while the mirror's angle is adjusting ever so slightly downward on each rotation, creating a very tight helix pattern.  The purpose is to create a “point cloud” dataset that can be pulled into 3D-modelling software.   The images here are really byproducts of the process (though you can use them to take measurements through one of Quantapoint’s own software products).

Last is the freaky stretching of our bodies.   This is the result of the time it takes to conduct each scan, which then was about one minute.  Much like you get ghosts and distortions from movement when taking a photograph at a prolonged exposure, the laser started scanning us as we were standing on the West Lawn together.  But as the mirror was tilting down, we decided to moved closer to the house. The stretching is the little bit the laser caught of us as we walked to our next stopping point (where the image shows our shoes standing solid and firm).   The chest and shoulders on the left with the swoopy streak coming from the neck is Eric, one of Quantapoint’s founders.  The disembodied head on the right – the one that looks like a Cheshire Cat – belongs to his wife.  I’m in the one in the middle with S-shaped face. (Click here to see my legs on the other end of the scan.)

If I remember correctly, Eric claimed the scans’ accuracy to 1/8th inch, but I think I think it was better than that.  And to show what I mean, I’ll leave with an image created from a scan of the Dome Room.  Not only is the image itself quite striking and beautiful, you can see some of the small cracks in the plaster the scan recorded.  Very cool!

Image created from hi-res laser scans of Monticello's Dome Room. Click to see a larger image.

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