Graduate establishing 3-D archive of Union artifacts

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Zachary Matson

In early June, Sonia Sandoval set up shop inside the rustic Adirondack room in the old Niskayuna home of conservationist Paul Schaefer, now a Union College research center.

She placed a Faro Focus 3-D scanner — it looks like a projector the size of a shoebox — on a sturdy tripod in the center of the room. Outfitted with lasers and mirrors, the scanner surveys the space in all directions and captures details large and small: the wood mantle over the massive stone fireplace, an old saw and wooden canoe paddles hanging on a wall, the titles of dusty books.

But it’s the details of the room’s centerpiece, an imposing relief map of the Adirondack Park, that matter most. The map includes the gentle bumps of the southern Adirondacks, the rugged locus of the High Peaks, the deep green carpet of forest, the faded blue lakes and streams and the thin gray roads that divide and subdivide the wilderness. It took years for Schaefer and his associates to create.

Sandoval, as part of a fellowship at Union, is using the 3-D scanner to produce a new version of the map.

The scanner is measuring millions of points on the map to produce a matrix of undulations and protrusions called a dot cloud. In the computer lab, Sandoval will use special software to connect the dots into triangular facets, recreating the contours on the map’s surface and constructing a three-dimensional model that can be manipulated and studied on a computer.

The scanner pivots on the tripod’s axis as its internal mirrors whirl and spin, collecting data from the room as lasers bounce in all directions. Sandoval moves it to three different spots and lets the scanner run on its own until it stops spinning and a friendly bell tells her it’s finished.

“We are really hoping to get the minute details,” she said, examining the surface of the map and the labels denoting lakes, towns and regions.

Once complete, Sandoval loaded up the scanner, her computer and took the new data back to Union, where she added it to a growing database of digital models of the college’s physical collections.

Capable fellow

Sandoval, 24, was born in Colombia, raised in Queens and is a 2016 Union graduate, with a major in environmental science. After graduation, she became a Mielke Fellow at the school, a position reserved for recent graduates who are deemed capable of contributing to the college in a unique way.

She has devoted nearly 20 hours a week since October to establishing a 3-D archive of Union artifacts, with the Adirondack map as its centerpiece. The digital artifact library will be housed on the college’s library website, allowing online viewers to rotate images of the artifacts around three axes. Viewers will also be able to zoom in and out and can select different views to examine the artifacts’various characteristics.

While Sandoval only scanned a handful of artifacts other than the relief map — actual Roman coins, historic thimbles, belt buckles and other items from a nearby archaeological site — she also ironed out a replicable process and created a manual, so future faculty, students and researchers can continue to build the 3-D archive over time.

“The goal is to have this be a long-term project,” Sandoval said.

By creating 3-D scans of Roman coins, campus statues and even entire buildings, the school can preserve and study in new ways the physical dimensions of its 222-year history. Students and researchers will be able to access online models and scans of the artifacts, studying their characteristics without dredging them out from a library basement. In the future, some of the scans could be used to produce physical models that allow further observation and analysis in labs and classrooms around the world.

“Traditionally, if you wanted to see something like that, you had to visit Schenectady,” said Bruce Connolly, a Union College librarian and Sandoval’s fellowship adviser.

While enthusiastic about the project, the automation of 3-D scanning and printing left a creative void in Sandoval, who first worked with Union’s 3-D technology in an art class her sophomore year. So to demonstrate how the technology can also be used for artistic expression, she is producing an art installation aimed at highlighting Union College’s “permanence” in Schenectady and the inextricable link between the city, campus and the Mohawk River.

“Sonia is like an onion, you peel away one level and there is still a whole lot more,” said Jeff Corbin, a Union College ecologist who served as Sandoval’s senior thesis adviser.

Advanced technology

Using publicly-available LIDAR data, which depicts the earth’s surface characteristics in high detail, Sandoval used Union’s 3-D printer to make a relief map of Schenectady. After long hours in a computer lab shaping the data into something printable — and even more hours printing a dozen 10-inch-by-10-inch sections —she plans to mount the map to a wall in Union College’s library and project historical maps over it, emphasizing changes to the city over time and showing the constant centrality of the college that predates the city it calls home. Later this week, she will work with the Schenectady Historical Society to produce higher-resolution scans of older maps, so she can use them in the art project, as well.

“All these pieces fit together,” Sandoval said Thursday as she connected her map’s sections, each of which took about 10 hours to print.

Sandoval used the map to point out the way runoff feeds the Mohawk River, the way the city grew up around Union College and the campus’ growing footprint. The land, the people and the history are all one, she said.

“It’s all necessary. It’s organic, and it all relies on each other to work,” Sandoval said.

But the art project is still a long technical slog. Starting three weeks ago, Sandoval uploaded the LIDAR data using one program and used another program to convert the data — on its own just a series of dots — into a printable shape.

The city on her screen, however, is unmistakable: A single nub of a building sits in the middle of a sprawling, two-tiered field. A semi-circle walkway fans out in front of neatly-organized structures laid out on a campus. She can only manage a section of the city that encompasses Union College, parts of downtown and the street corridors that fan out from the historic campus. Long rectangular warehouses, arranged like military columns sit beside the river at the old Alco site, now the home of the Mohawk Harbor development.

Finish line

By Thursday, she was one last print from completing her map.

The more you look at it, the more of the city you see: the raised train tracks that slither through the city, the long bridge that stretches to Scotia, Schenectady Community College’s Elston Hall, the squat armory, the Erie and State street corridors.

But the imperfections stand out too. Bumps and ridges disrupt the otherwise smooth surface of the Mohawk River as it sweeps across the northern third of the relief map. The flaws are due to inaccuracies in the underlying data, caused by the sun reflecting off the water when the laser-based measurements were collected from the air.

“I actually like it — our best-guess representation. Even when we try to imitate nature using lasers from an airplane, we can’t quite get it,” Sandoval said, rubbing her hand on the rough surface of the map. A little human humility.”