Transforming Tampa Bay: The world, around us

How USF's CVAST is bringing the far and away up close, in three vibrant dimensions.

click to enlarge CVAST’s digitization of a 150-year-old French paleontological museum is available online. - Herbert Maschner, Ph.D. Principal Investigator, CVAST with Hitz Foundation support
Herbert Maschner, Ph.D. Principal Investigator, CVAST with Hitz Foundation support
CVAST’s digitization of a 150-year-old French paleontological museum is available online.

Have you ever felt like your mind was being stretched like bubble gum? That your perceptions were growing broader and wider and more colorful... without drugs?

Well, it’s an exhilarating and slightly unnerving experience available in our very own area, as the University of South Florida’s Center for Visualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST) opens new worlds to explore.

The CVAST space contains computers, screens and equipment which empower students and professors to explore objects in three dimensions.

What’s so extraordinary about this resource is that it’s wired into collaborations globally, but based right here in Tampa Bay.

“Communication in today’s world increasingly revolves around digital imagery. The College of Arts and Sciences at USF has for many years been committed to becoming a leader in 3D imaging and visualization. Originally created by Lori Collins and Travis Doering, the Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technology has worked hard across the globe to preserve and protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage,” explained Dean Eric Eisenberg.

What sort of applications can this technology have? In March, a USF team from CVAST traveled to Paris to document the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle — Galeries d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie. This 150-year-old museum installation containing unique skeletons has now been filmed in three dimensions, and you can see it on YouTube!

The team sent from USF possessed completely diverse academic backgrounds. In fact, one of the strengths of CVAST is that anthropologists, technologists, archeologists, architects and computer analysts are collaborating to develop the newest and most productive applications for these amazing tools.

The leader of this merry band is Dr. Herbert Maschner, a gifted researcher, author, and deal-maker. He is a specialist in the prehistory of the North Pacific and in archaeological method and theory. His publications cover a range of topics including geographical information systems (GIS), Darwinian theory, accelerator physics, complex systems analysis, fisheries ecology, community sustainability, and museum studies.

His recent research, highlighted in National Geographic, is focused on using 3D scanning and virtualization techniques to bring entire archaeological and natural history repositories to the world as part of an effort to democratize science. Dr. Maschner is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also plays jazz guitar in the spirit of Django Reinhardt.

Dr. Maschner brought to USF a very impressive $4.6 million research grant from the Hitz Foundation, which was matched by College of Arts and Sciences funds. This nest egg enabled him to purchase the fabulous equipment now being used for projects around the world, literally — from Japan to Spain, from Sicily to Italy, the CVAST team is engaged in cutting-edge applications of technology to global issues.

When I asked Dr. Maschner how he selected which projects to pursue, he said that after years of research in Arctic regions, he now favors areas with good food and wine... hence the number of Mediterranean research locations. This summer, he is directing teams in so many locales that he’s developing a 3D calendar to better schedule his conference calls with colleagues from vastly different time zones.

The sheer inventiveness of these projects makes you want to volunteer as a luggage carrier. In La Mancha, Spain, a group of six scientists is scanning castles ranging from 4500 to 700 years old. In Sicily, a team has been given a villa from which to study the entire world of the ancient Greeks around Syracuse. Outside of Siena, Italy they’re exploring Medieval towns and early Christian architecture.

“The democratization of knowledge, using 3D technologies, newly developed image-based database architectures, online measurement and analysis tools brings information to any scientist, student, educator, or layperson, located anywhere in the world,” explains Dr. Maschner.

On a local level, the Bro Bowl, a historically designated skateboard site, was recreated in a different part of Perry Harvey, Sr. Park, with the contours of this very sculptural park depending on the 3D technology to assure their authenticity. Another intriguing application, based on the success of the Paris museum scan, would be creating virtual tours of our local museums.

“We wouldn’t have to pay for trans-Atlantic flights, and two weeks of hotels in a very pricey city,” Maschner noted. “We could provide 3D tours of local museums for less than $40,000 and research shows that this info online actually drives attendance, because visitors are eager to experience what they see online.”

Moving ahead, I wonder if the lines between external reality and exploration will blur further? Will I be able to put on a pair of virtual reality glasses and see different neighborhoods in town as they were, as they are and as they might be in the future? The CVAST team might be just the group to create this scenario.

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