3D scanning and heritage preservation for the future

Submitted by Sam on 9 November, 2011 - 20:02

The most recent TED talk, Ben Kacyra's Ancient wonders captured in 3D demonstrates a 3D laser scanning system that rapidly generates 3D visualizations of real-world objects by bombarding them with beams of laser light, recording the angle of the beam and measuring the time the light takes to reflect back to the scanner, and compiling this data to into a 'point cloud' that maps a virtual 3D scene.

At the end of the talk, Kacyra reveals to the audience that they have been scanned whilst he has been speaking, and he shows them a 3D fly-through of the auditorium they're in. They have been “digitally preserved in about four minutes”.

This kind of digital preservation of the real-world can combine with video and still imagery to create highly-realistic models of perishable structures that can be used, if necessary, as the basis of unparalleled restoration and rebuilding projects. The 3D models can have huge educative value, and if the plans are shared freely, they can allow heritage sites, for instance, to be virtually explored and enjoyed from anywhere in the world, at any time in the future.

But today's laser scanning is “only” accurate to a few millimetres, and is only skin-deep. Whilst it is very well suited for large preservation projects like digitizing Mount Rushmore for a smartphone app, it is useless for penetrating within an object and recording its contents with microscopic resolution. If we could rapidly record and reconstruct with atomic-level detail, would the replica be any different from the original? Would we be able to scan and then reconstruct living organisms, bit by bit?

The ultimate trajectory of this kind of technology could very well lead to this staggering level of control. Eric Drexler sketched out one endpoint for 3D scanning technology in Engines of Creation in 1986, where he outlined how molecular disassemblers comprising of a system of nanomachines could deconstruct an object atom by atom and simultaneously record each atom's position for later reconstruction.

Our crude four-minute 3D models are a long way from this ultimate precision, but there are no physical laws that need to be broken to get there. It may just be a matter of time before any object, living or non-living, can be scanned, preserved and then replicated with perfect fidelity.

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