Exploring Photogrammetry

Lately my student workers and I have been exploring two different photogrammetry tools in the Media Lab that create 3D models from real life – Agisoft PhotoScan and the Qlone App. Both programs use many pictures of an object to infer its physical shape, generating 3D models that can be used in other programs like SketchUp or OnShape. (For an in-depth view of photogrammetry, check out this great explanation by Emily Lankiewicz ’17.)

Qlone is a free app for your phone or tablet. It is easy and quick to use but produces lower quality models, which you have to pay to export. You place an object on a reference sheet (we have 3 sizes in the lab for this purpose) and then the app guides you through capturing the object from every angle. Below you can see the process of scanning a brick fragment that I found in the Mill River downstream from Williamsburg, Massachusetts. The results are decent for adding small touches to a virtual space, as in an architectural model, but not high quality enough for 3D printing or detailed reproduction.

Agisoft PhotoScan is much more powerful but also more demanding. Using photos that you supply, it can create terrain maps and 3D models. It does this by first matching points between images to infer camera positions, then generating a dense point cloud, and finally a 3D model with photographic textures. The major challenge is with the photos themselves – uneven lighting, shiny surfaces, and variations in camera settings can all impact the quality of the final model.

For gathering workable images, it’s a good idea to use a DSLR camera like the ones available from Media Resources. I suggest locking the shutter and aperture values if you can, with preference for a smaller aperture to produce a greater depth of field. A tripod is also advisable, or a quick shutter speed if you have enough light. Subsequent photos should overlap by about two thirds to give the software enough common points to lock onto. Using a Nikon D90 at ~F11 and ISO 800, I was able to capture several successful models.

The first is a plaster cast of a man and horse from the west frieze of the Parthenon that is installed in the Art Building. I probably took more photos than strictly necessary, which extended the processing time, but also ensured that every angle was covered. Bas-relief sculptures can be particularly hard to capture in a single photograph well, and the 3D model allows for close inspection from angles that would not normally be available, even in person. Since this particular cast is located on a landing in a stairwell, the model also provides accessibility for people who might not otherwise be able to reach it.

SketchFab Panathenaic Procession

The second object I experimented with, a wood burl on a tree by the Field Gate entrance to campus, demonstrates how the quality and lighting of the subject also affects the outcome. The natural surface gives the software many points to latch onto, and I shot on an overcast day for nice even lighting. If you zoom in on the central fold, you can even see the tiny holes that insects have left behind. Viewing this model from behind also makes clear how the burl has twisted and contorted the tree while driving its own growth.

SketchFab Wood Burl

Another interesting component of Agisoft PhotoScan is the ability to create topographies from aerial photographs. While I didn’t have any of these on hand, I did have a sequence of high resolution photos of the ground that came out of my Meadows Project some years ago. At an “altitude” of just a few inches, even sand grains look like boulders. Here, a bit of brick and a fragment of a brake light take on new form, suggesting uses in both art and ecology.

SketchFab Detail of Grains 2016

Finally, I’ll point out that SketchFab, which I’ve been using to display the 3D models, also incorporates virtual reality settings, so that you can position and scale a model relative to the viewer. Below, I’ve set the viewer among the grains of sand to see the Meadows from the perspective of an ant.

These software options make photogrammetry more accessible than ever, and complement the 3D modeling and printing technology that’s already being used in the Media Lab. From art and architecture to game design and biology, photogrammetry is a tool for teaching and research that is coming into its own. Stop by the Media Lab to learn more and try these tools for yourself.

Laser Cutting a Woodblock

Students from Christine Andrews’ course on Northern Renaissance Art visited the Makerspace for a special project recently, recreating a 15th century print of Saint Barbara from the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. We began by cleaning up a digital image of the print and converting it to a file that could be used to carve a new printing plate using the laser cutter. One major challenge was to get the printed lines to be thick enough that they would show up in the wood printing plate. Students learned techniques for adjusting the image to thicken the lines.

laser cutter engraving wood
On a 60 Watt Epilog Fusion laser cutter, 65% speed and 100% power at 1200ppi gives good results.

With the help of Amanda Maciuba from Studio Art, we then turned to printing the recreated blocks. While contemporary printers often used the end grain of boxwood or cherry for their printing plates, we made do with a modern choice of birch plywood. The students got hands-on experience with inking the plates and running them through the press.

examining a print
Tori Gernert-Dott ’20 examines a print with Professors Andrews and Maciuba, while Rebecca Grossman ’18 looks on.

woodbock and print

Finally, the students turned their skills to creating personal printing blocks from details of historic prints or by creating their own monogram, employing the Photoshop skills that were used in preparing Saint Barbara. As Yiqi Chen ’20 discovered, this process can be both rewarding and challenging, highlighting how much effort goes into creating a good impression. The students came away from the exercise with a tangible experience that complemented their work in the museum, and a deepened understanding of the medium they are studying.

students watching the laser cutter
Students look on as their monograms and details are produced.
Personal monogram TGD
Personal monogram designed and printed by Tori Gernert-Dott ’20.

For anyone wishing to develop their own monogram, I would highly recommend The Classified Directory of Artists Signatures, Symbols & Monograms. With everything from Whistler’s butterfly monogram to Dürer’s actual signature, this is a valuable resource for aspiring artists and art historians alike.

albrecht durer monograms

Insights from ISAM 2017

I recently returned from the second annual International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces, hosted by the Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University. A strong theme of the conference was how to broaden the appeal of makerspaces beyond engineering departments. It became apparent that many colleges and universities continue to struggle to attract women to the STEM fields and especially to engineering departments. Being a historically women’s college, Mount Holyoke has not faced this struggle in the same way. Combining our strength in STEM programs with an interdisciplinary makerspace, we seem to be ahead of the curve in attracting students who have not been well represented in the fields of engineering and innovation in the past.

Nick at ISAM 2017 Poster SessionI had the privilege of co-authoring a paper and poster that Kathy Aidala ably presented, Empowering the Liberal Arts Student: Tech for All (Aidala et al. 2017). In the paper, we describe helping students feel comfortable using tools and technology, creating a welcoming environment in the Makerspace, and reaching beyond traditionally tech-heavy disciplines to engage a wide range of students.

Across the board, I was struck by the positive role that libraries have to play in academic makerspaces. On a practical level, they have long experience with circulating media and equipment, a service that has been leveraged by MIT among others. More importantly, reference librarians and instructional technologists can help make connections beyond science and engineering departments, serving as the connective tissue on campus to a broad range of disciplines, from theater to film studies. I’ve seen this in my own work as a Library/IT person embedded in a makerspace, and I expect we’ll see similar roles evolving at other institutions as the idea of a makerspace on campus matures.

Egyptian Pendant, 1st millenium BCEFinally, I found time to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art, with their excellent collection of arms and armor, and other examples of “making.” One of my favorite pieces to see was a gold and turquoise pendant from Egypt, which incorporates a hinge! While one of the earliest written references to a hinge is about Solomon’s Temple,* they are certainly an ancient technology. This one dates to perhaps the 11th century BCE, and hints at how the hinge might have evolved from fine metalwork to larger and more functional applications.

* King Solomon’s temple had “…hinges of gold, both for the doors of the inner house, the most holy place, and for the doors of the house, to wit, of the temple.” -1 Kings 7:50, King James version

Opening a Music Lab

This fall Mount Holyoke College was awarded a $500,000 grant to support technology for the arts. As the Technical and Education Coordinator for the grant, I’ll be spending the next four years working on this. I’m so excited to be purchasing and deploying equipment, training students and developing protocols to maintain it, and helping faculty integrate the technology into their teaching. We’ll be building digital music labs, outfitting the new Makerspace, developing the Media Lab, and supporting the performing arts with projectors and interactive displays.

Our first project is already complete, the transformation of a seminar room in Pratt Music Hall into a digital music composition lab. Working closely with Thomas Ciufo, innovation hire in music and entrepreneurship, we transformed a seminar room into an accessible lab that triples the number of students who can take introductory courses in electronic music.

Completing this lab in time for fall term wouldn’t have been possible without the help of everyone in Facilities Management, Networking, Campus Technology Services, the Dean of Faculty’s office, and especially Ciufo, seen here on a ladder installing new speakers. Now that the lab is complete, we can turn to preparing a new sound mastering and recording lab for classes in the spring.

Makerspace Tools for Art

Looking for inspiration in using the tools in the Makerspace for your art? Here are some examples to get you thinking:

Electronic Prototypes, aka Arduino:
Anouk Wipprecht, Spider Dress
Daniel Rozin, Descent with Modifications (aka fur mirror)
Mey Lean Kronemann, Lumibots
Chris O’Shea, Audience
Random International, Rain Room at MoMA
Jonathan Vingiano, Credit Synthesis

Laser Cutting:
Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections
Olafur Eliasson’s Your House

Anouk Wipprecht, Spider Dress
Anouk Wipprecht, Spider Dress


Where Can I Fly a Drone?

The FAA recently released new rules for drones, and people have been asking if we can fly drones for class at Mount Holyoke. In theory yes, but with several caveats:

Under the new Small UAS Rules, the drone must be under 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet above ground level at less than 100 mph. The drone cannot fly over people or from a moving vehicle.

A Remote Pilot in Charge who has passed the Airman Knowledge Test and TSA Screening must be in control of the drone or supervising the person controlling the drone, and within line of sight to the drone at all times.

The drone must be registered with the FAA and have a registration number plainly visible.

Any flights outside of Class G airspace require a prior waiver from the FAA. At Mount Holyoke, we may require a waiver because we are near Westover ARB Class D airspace.

The good news is that just about all of these requirements can be waived. That’s the way to go if you’re planning a class exercise, research activity, or you just want to launch a fleet of commercial* drones. That, or talk to the amazing folks in the Makerspace and see what other solutions might be possible.

Many Drones with FAA Waiver

* Yes, Mount Holyoke is a non-profit educational institution. For the time being, however, the commercial regulations apply to us as well.

Motion Control Techniques

Robotics and video blend together when filmmakers create stunning visuals with motion control systems. In Hollywood this equipment can run into the millions of dollars, but excellent results can be obtained for just a fraction of that cost by students using open source technology and a little creativity.

Students examine the motion control device with 3D printed winch.

The students in Bernadine Mellis’ Video Production course met with me in the Makerspace this November to explore improvised motion control systems. The students were excited to drive a camera using an Arduino microcontroller and a 3D-printed winch, and came up with several ideas for incorporating the technique into their work.

Demonstrating the motion control winch and camera trigger.

“Whether or not you use a system like this in your final project, you’ll be able to recognize this technique when you see it in the future,” said Mellis, Five College Lecturer in Film and Video Production.

Camera Bot

Recreating Early Paris

“Directly adjacent to the sacristy to which it was attached, stood a building of the same construction, that is to say, Gothic, and dating to the same time period. The chapter house, divided by a wall from the sacristy, was a large rectangular room around 25 long and 18 meters wide, divided into two vessels by a row of stone columns. It opened into the cloister through five pointed arches without doors as was typical for these rooms.”*

Cordeliers Chapter House by Lusha Sun
Detailed drawings of the chapter house door and other architectural details are all that survive.

That chapter house, and the convent it was attached to, are now long gone, demolished at the turn of the 19th century. When Michael Davis first approached me about recreating the Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris, I imagined it would be a simple trick to turn drawings and accounts into a 3D model. In reality, the act of modeling forced an extremely close reading of the historical evidence, highlighting gaps and inconsistencies.

chapter house evidence
Organized evidence of the size and features of the Chapter House.

For the Digital Paris course, we decided to have the students focus their efforts on the chapter house as a manageable piece of the puzzle. Using SketchUp, we practiced extruding columns and arches from detailed cross sections, gaining a greater appreciation for the complex geometry of Gothic architecture along the way. Finally, students integrated the pieces into fully formed models.

Cordeliers Chapter House by Lusha Sun
Cordeliers Chapter House by Lusha Sun

While SketchUp is not the most robust 3D modeling tool in the world, it has a gentle learning curve and served to spark interest in more complex tools like AutoCAD and Rhino for several students. Thanks to the ease of use, we were able to focus on architectural geometries, context, and close reading of the evidence rather than struggling with the software.

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*Description of the chapter house of the Franciscan convent from Laure Beaumont-Maillet, Le Grand Couvent des Cordeliers de Paris. Etude historique et archéologique du XIIIe siècle à nos jours (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1975), p 322. Dimensions from a 16th century account by Francesco-Scipio Gonzaga.

Pop Up Media Lab Launched

The Pop Up Media Lab has been installed in the former slide room!  This is an experiment in creating a space for technology exploration through new media and interactive art installations.  Inspired by an article on the transformative possibilities of temporary improvements, we decided to see what could be done to program the slide room as a creative nexus of interdisciplinary collaboration (along the lines of the MIT Media Lab).

Students and faculty discuss plans for the lab.

We have had enthusiastic response to the idea from faculty and students alike, and have begun by simply opening the space every afternoon and one evening a week for students to work and study (thanks to extra student workers from LITS). At the same time, the student workers in the lab have begun to develop new media projects that take some computer vision programs (courtesy of Audrey Lee-St. John) and apply them to the creation of artwork.

Emil Evans creates vinyl cutouts of Mary Lyon to decorate the space.

The lab has also hosted interdisciplinary conversations among faculty, including discussions between Joe Smith and Lisa Ballesteros about a first year seminar in Computer Science dealing with robotics and art.  And just this week, students in Digital Art are installing vinyl artwork in the windows that will further transform the space.  Our amazing students are really driving this forward, and continue to impress me with their ability and enthusiasm.

Tatiana Ginsberg (right) prepares her artwork for installation in the Mount Holyoke greenhouse.

If this experiment is successful, I think we’ll see more interdisciplinary collaborations and exhibitions, a portfolio of interesting projects, and student workers gaining great experience.

“I’m very excited about the possibilities that the pop-up media lab will bring to the MHC community. Nick has already facilitated brainstorming sessions that have sparked ideas for creative new projects, such as iPad apps with the Art Museum and architecture department, and I feel like we’re only scratching the surface.” – Audrey Lee-St. John, Computer Science

“The lab will hopefully encourage more cross-pollination between all the disciplines in the Art Building and bring in the possibility for more interaction with computer science. We have many students who are interested in the intersection of art and technology, and we’d like to encourage the computer science majors to collaborate with students in the arts.” – Tatiana Ginsberg, Studio Art

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