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World Heritage Class Digitally Preserves Fort Ross

July 14, 2009

Maurizio Forte, professor of world heritage, took 27 UC Merced students on a field trip to Fort Ross this past spring to record history, make history and influence the future at the same time.

Using cutting-edge scanning equipment sponsored by Faro Technologies, Forte and his students were the first to digitally record the artifacts, buildings and landscape of a California state park.

“Fort Ross is one of the most important historical sites in Northern California, and there is a strong connection between UC Merced and the California State Parks,” Forte said. “In the future, we want to collaborate on virtual-reality reconstruction of Fort Ross for visitors and school children.”

Forte is used to being first when it comes to digitally preserving historic ruins and artifacts. Last summer, he and a team of UC Merced researchers were the first authorized to scan the stone statues of the Mausoleum of Maoling, a national treasure in the Xi’an province of China. Aside from being closer to home, the Fort Ross field trip was unique in its own right.

 “This experience was a trial, an experiment in training students from different classes in the schools of engineering, natural sciences, and social sciences, humanities and arts. It required cultural skills, technology skills and we had to create new teams in a cross-learning environment.”

Students spent the weeks leading up the field trip studying background information, and training to use the scanners designed to capture and process 3-D data at 100,000 points per second.

On site, one group of students worked in the museum and visitor center to scan and recreate artifacts like ceramics and very old Indian dolls and baskets, some of which date back to the 19th century. The other group worked outside in the middle of the fort to scan the internal and external parts of the buildings.

“A 3-D object in virtual reality can be ‘handled’ in ways the real object cannot. A fragile basket becomes transportable and can be rotated and turned upside down for closer scrutiny without risk of damage. Scientific analysis, like calculating the volume of the basket, becomes precise because all of the data is available in digital format,” Forte explained with increasing enthusiasm. “We can extrapolate profiles and subject the artifact to a complete system of analysis.”

The students have demonstrated that it is possible to record a park like Fort Ross in a matter of hours. Three-dimensional data recording of artifacts and the environment enabled students to virtually recreate them. During data capturing, students were able to see the 3-D model generated on their laptops in real time. Within two days, they were watching a 3-D movie of their results in class.

“The movie, the result, made it very, very tangible for them,” Forte said.

Once fixed in virtual reality, the artifacts and surrounding environment can also be used to develop interactive teaching tools for the thousands who visit the park each year.

Forte finds this equally exciting. “Animating the living artifacts creates a different experience. It changes learning from a static or passive experience to an interactive one because they can move the objects, see them in original context and experience how people used specific tools.”

Forte should know. He’s an international leader in this field of research and was recently awarded the Tartessos Prize at the International Meeting on Graphic Archeology and Informatics, Cultural Heritage and Innovation, which was held in Spain this summer.