May 9-15, 2003
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See Jefferson’s library
New Orleans visitors can see virtual room in Monticello.
U.Va. professor David Luebke sits in front of a projected image of Monticello’s virtual library, the project he and his students recently completed.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
U.Va. professor David Luebke sits in front of a projected image of Monticello’s virtual library, the project he and his students recently completed. Luebke hopes to work with Monticello again to scan other rooms and buildings on the historic site. He also sees potential use of his technology in medicine and emergency rescue work.

By Charlotte Crystal

Visitors to the New Orleans Museum of Art now can peer through the windows of a reproduction of Monticello’s west façade — the side shown on the nickel — and see a 3-D image of Thomas Jefferson’s library, thanks to the efforts of a team of computer scientists in Virginia and North Carolina.

This won’t be the first time that museums have used virtual reality techniques to transport their visitors into different times and places, said David Luebke, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Virginia. But it is the first time the technique has been combined with laser-scanning technology to show what an actual room looks like, rather than to display a computer-generated drawing, he said.

“Visitors to the New Orleans exhibition [can] see an authentic, three-dimensional image of Jefferson’s library that is accurate down to the square centimeter,” Luebke said.

The Monticello exhibit is part of the museum’s five-month exhibition of “Jefferson’s America & Napoleon’s France,” which commemorates the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, and opened to the public on April 12.

Luebke began the project after learning about a prototype laser scanner built by Lars Nyland at the University of North Carolina. Together, Luebke and Nyland sought a site of public and historic interest for a detailed scan. They conducted a pilot scan of Monticello in the summer of 2000, and the New Orleans museum contacted Luebke shortly thereafter regarding plans for using the scanned image in this year’s exhibition.

Nyland’s start-up company is refining the scanner — a sort of giant, digital camera that records a scene in minute detail by scanning every inch of a room with a laser — and reducing the television-sized prototype to a smaller, more lightweight, portable scanner. The current model — the DeltaSphere 3000 — is a 12-inch-by-12-inch-by-4-inch box weighing about 30 pounds. For their part, Luebke and his students have focused on improving the speed and quality of the visual display of the scanner.

Over several months, Luebke, his students and his U.N.C. colleagues trucked the equipment up the mountain to scan Jefferson’s library. The room needed to be free of visitors, so Luebke and his team worked around visiting hours, using the scanner at night and early in the morning.

Luebke plans to provide Monticello with the virtual images for its Web site. He also hopes to collaborate with Monticello to scan other rooms and other buildings on the historic site for use in research, education or publication on the Web.

The project fits in with Luebke’s research interest in creating rapid, understandable visual displays of huge data sets. With each scan of Monticello made up of 10 million data points, the challenge is to create software that can organize and display the information fast enough to create a meaningful picture for an interactive display. The solution involves inventing techniques to enable the computer to identify the most important 10th of the information and ignore the rest.

The technology’s applications in the fields of architecture and archaeology particularly interest

Luebke. He sees potential applications in medicine and emergency rescue work, among other fields, too.

“Whenever you develop a new technology like this, some applications are clear from the outset and others develop over time,” Luebke said.

“As the use of visual displays of information expands, I won’t know how exactly my research will be useful. I just know that it will be.”


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