MATTHEW SHAW AND William Trossell document the world with lasers.
When the duo founded ScanLab Projects in 2011, they were a pair of freshly minted architecture school graduates who’d gotten their hands on an extraordinarily expensive commercial-grade laser scanner. Today, their London-based studio is at the forefront of large-scale 3-D laser scanning, specializing in striking, ghostly reproductions of castles, museums, ice floes and more, conjured from billions of millimeter-precise dots.
ScanLab’s latest undertaking is a sprawling scan of Mail Rail, a network of abandoned tunnels once used to transport mail beneath London. Like much of the group’s work, it sits at the intersection of utility and beauty, commerce and art. On one level, it’s an unprecedentedly detailed document of a historically significant site—a laudable bit of high-tech preservation. On another, it’s a work of art in an arresting new medium, a strange offspring of photography and computer-generated imagery. Depending on your perspective, it’s either the past seen through the lens of the future, or the future seen through the lens of the past.
Laser scanning, or Lidar, has been used for decades in fields like surveying, archaeology, and geology. The name, a portmanteau of “laser” and “radar,” offers a rough sense of how it works: A scanner shoots an infrared laser out at the world, waits for its reflection, and measures the distance to that point. Today’s scanners do this millions of times a second. These measurements form what’s called a point cloud—a high-resolution 3-D image of a place, a surface, an object.
Shaw and Trossell discovered terrestrial laser scanning as students at the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture. Faro, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3-D imaging hardware, had given the school some equipment in hopes of seeding the technology in the architecture market. Shaw and Trossell were instantly intrigued. Their thinking soon went beyond architecture to more poetic possibilities. For one early project, they tried to scan a cloud of mist.
In the years that followed, Shaw and Trossel developed a unique mastery of their craft and applied it to a variety of fields. In 2011, they travelled to the Arctic with University of Cambridge researchers, using laser scans to help document how ice floes were being affected by climate change. They worked with a forensic archaeologist to scan concentration camps in former Yugoslavia. In 2014, they captured a mile-long stretch of beach at Normandy for a PBS documentary on D-Day, exhibited a series of captivating glitches from their work in an art gallery, and collaborated with Vivienne Westwood on the world’s first laser-based fashion photoshoot.
When Shaw and Trossel founded ScanLab in 2011, a good laser scanner cost as much as a house in the Bay Area. Today, you can get one for the price of a luxury car. A number of companies now specialize in laser scanning, for everything from architectural surveys to preserving digital copies of museum artifacts. Still, few have experimented with the technology as extensively as ScanLab. “They’ve always been prepared to misuse the equipment,” says Geoff Manaugh, the founder of the architecture site BLDG Blog. This has been central to ScanLab’s success. As Manaugh puts it, Shaw and Trossell are “like two friends who hot-wire a Ferrari one night only to become the world’s best stunt drivers less than five years later.”
The London Post Office Railway, affectionately known as Mail Rail, was an automated system that shuttled mail underneath London starting in 1927. Its 23 miles of track are buried some 70 feet below the city. At its peak, the service carried 4 million letters daily. It was closed in 2003 and has been all but abandoned since.
Last year, the British Postal Museum & Archive got permission to turn a section of track into a ride; the subterranean tour will be part of a postal museum slated for completion in 2017. The construction inevitably will alter the space, which pains Martin Devereux, who leads the museum’s digital efforts. “It’s a real special place,” he says. “It has a quality of its own. It’s claustrophobic. It’s quiet. You can’t believe, when you’re down there, that you’re in central London.”
The ride will let the public enjoy that space and its history, but the museum wondered if there wasn’t a way to preserve it in its undisturbed state. “We were wracking our brains,” Devereux says. “‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually record it, document it—do what is actually our job, as a museum—in terms of preserving what was left, before it gets changed?’” Someone suggested the museum contact ScanLab.
The project required 223 laser scans, collected over four days in December. Each scan takes 10 minutes to half an hour to complete. ScanLab also takes photographs, which it uses later to map color onto the point cloud (newer scanners can capture color automatically, but ScanLab prefers its techniques; the vivid color of the group’s scans is part of its uncanny magic). Once the field work is done, software compiles individual scans into a point cloud. The Mail Rail scan is comprised of more than 11 billion points, consuming over a terabyte of storage. (When the ScanLab guys talk numbers with companies that specialize in data storage and backup solutions, the experts often assume ScanLab is an architecture studio of 150 employees. It has in fact expanded—it’s now a team of six.)
Devereux was floored by the results. “When you look at what ScanLab has produced, it’s a piece of art,” he says. ScanLab let some museum employees swim through the scan in an Oculus Rift, and Devereux recalled the unique sensation of peeling through the layers of space and seeing the underside of the lines on the streets above him—an impossible perspective. Shaw and Trossell haven’t tired of the thrill themselves. “I must’ve pressed the start button on that machine like 10,000 times now, but still, you open up those scans and you can’t quite believe it,” Shaw says.
Manaugh, who’s covered ScanLab’s work extensively on his blog, has a term for this enchanting new media: volumetric photography. “You’re not just capturing surfaces and reflections, but entire volumes of space,” he says. “You can see through buildings, through walls, even through the surface of the Earth, as if you’ve somehow placed time on pause to study the present moment from every angle.” He calls them “x-rays of the built environment.”
The only problem with the futuristic media: We haven’t quite built the technology to appreciate it yet. “There’s this kind of strange thing, where our projects still always end up in relatively traditional formats,” like images or films, Shaw says. “It doesn’t really do it justice. That’s one of the things that keeps us going.”
Consumer VR headsets could be the perfect platform for this sort of work, and Devereux says he’d love to make the Mail Rail model available for download when that’s technically feasible. In the meantime, there have been talks about some sort of touring exhibition of a VR experience of the Mail Rail model. “We’re not sure where to take it next, but we have lots of ideas,” Devereux says.
Commercial scans like Mail Rail are only half of what ScanLab does. The other half—the “lab” half—is dedicated to interrogating the technology of laser scanning itself. This has been part of ScanLab’s DNA from the beginning; it’s what makes Shaw and Trossell think of pointing a $400,000 laser scanner at a cloud of fog.
ScanLab has done several compelling projects in this more critical mode. Among the first, from 2011, revolved around Lidar-jamming “stealth objects.” Envisioning a future in which cities are subject to the constant scrutiny of lidar scans, Shaw and Trossell devised hypothetical devices for deceiving the lasers and distorting what they recorded. A speculative tool called the “stealth drill” was meant to dissolve scan data, “creating voids and new openings in the scanned urban landscape.” A “boundary miscommunication device” would trick scans into registering paths, tunnels and walls that didn’t exist.
In 2012, Shaw and Trossell led a group of Bartlett architecture students on something they called “The Grand Stealth Tour.” The goal was to use laser scanning to surreptitiously steal architectural details from famous London monuments. As the students “admired the architecture” the scanner measured, captured and stored the buildings’ details, in a sense cloning the architect’s intellectual property in the process. After the scans were complete, the group used Bartlett’s CNC router to reproduce some of the architectural details in full size. It was a good-natured bit of subversion, but it had a sharp point: To consider what copyright theft might look like in a future that allows a millimeter-perfect scan of any object with the wave of a laser.
That future might not be as far off as you’d think. As Shaw notes, commercial-grade Lidar scanning remains phenomenally expensive, but costs inevitably will fall. The scans produced by the Xbox Kinect are “not dissimilar” to those captured by ScanLab’s hardware, he says. Google has showed off prototypes of smartphones with the ability to make 3-D scans; its self driving cars use lasers to make sense of their surroundings. A company called Velodyne is making a puck-like device that will bring Lidar to drones for less than $10,000. One way or another, it won’t be long before we’re scanning our world to an unprecedented degree, creating a three-dimensional copy of reality unlike any made before.
That, Shaw says, is what really motivates ScanLab: The fact that someday soon, every car and every smartphone in the world could be capturing this sort of data. “We see it as a bit of a duty to work out what the hell that data is before the flood arrives.”
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