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Spring 2002

In This Issue:

A Sign of the Times: New Faculty

Morris Robot Wins 3rd Place and Creativity Award

Archaeologists Use Robots in Egyptian Desert

Annual Awards Dinner

Young Alums Return for Basketball Game

Marconi Prize

Grad School Stats

Degrees Via CVN

"Eye on Japan"

Alumni Briefs

Magill Lecture


In the Dakhleh Oasis of Egypt’s Western Desert, Roelof Versteeg pushed a jury-rigged cart made of PVC piping equipped with two cesium gradiometers and a differential global positioning system receiver to scan the remnants of an ancient town lying beneath the sand. Versteeg, a geophysicist in the department of earth and environmental engineering, is part of an interdisciplinary team of eight computer scientists, archeologists, and art historians who are using 21st century technology to discover the location of structures that once were the Roman town of Trimithis. The incongruous juxtaposition of robots and archeological sites is the result of an imaginative proposal led by Peter Allen, professor of computer science, who formed this interdisciplinary team that was awarded a $2 million National Science Foundation grant. “This grant brings together a range of technology on historical reconstruction and applies it to an area of research that is manual, slow and labor intensive,” said Allen. “We have combined several areas of research that will apply new digital technologies to the problem so we can create tools that will model, visualize and analyze historic and ancient sites more accurately, efficiently and with a minimum of invasiveness.”

The five-year NSF project takes advantage of Columbia University’s excavations at Amheida, Egypt, which began in 2000. According to archeologist Lynn Meskell, associate professor of anthropology, the site comprises a substantial urban center with standing remains dating to the Roman period plus mud brick tombs to the south that date to Ptolemaic and Roman times.

Profs. Steve Feiner, Ken Ross and Peter Allen with Allen's robot.

Four members of the Engineering School faculty are involved in the project: Allen; Steven Feiner (professor of computer science); Kenneth Ross (associate professor of computer science); and Versteeg. Allen and Versteeg will provide the surface and subsurface mapping of the site to create a high quality 3D model of the site. Feiner will create a wearable, augmented reality system for presenting this information to mobile users, while Ross will take data accumulated at the excavation site and make it accessible to everyone who might be interested in archeology.

Allen will use his mobile site-modeling robot to create a photo-realistic, geometrically accurate 3D model of the outdoor sites. The robot will use range and imaging sensors, including a color camera, a 360-degree Omnicam, the omnidirectional camera developed by Prof. Shree Nayar, and a Cyrax laser range scanner. The remote controlled robot may also be equipped with Versteeg’s tools and used again as the vehicle for scanning the subsurface.

“This would be the best method to scan such a large area,” said Versteeg. “Last month I walked over 100 kilometers to collect information from several million data points. The area is 2 square kilometers and we need to have centimeter accuracy. With robotic sensors it is simple to take data.” Once initial surface and subsurface data have been obtained, Feiner’s augmented reality eyewear will overlay the 3D world with important information for archeologists, including 3D models, and 2D images and text. “As we accumulate data about the artifacts that are discovered, it will be possible to use our head-worn displays to view relevant portions of this information as we look around the site, registered with the things that we see in the real world. For example, when looking at a piece of pottery, a researcher might be able to call up for comparison images, models, and descriptions of related items from different parts of the site or from other sites.”

Feiner is also interested in how researchers can take advantage of a site model that changes over time as work at the site progresses. “Imagine being able to turn the time dial,” he said, “and see where you came from. You can go from viewing the area prior to excavation, to seeing it in its current state, superimposing subsurface data to visualize which places might be most promising to explore next.”

With large amounts of information coming out of the desert site, organizing the information is a task that falls to Ken Ross. His role in the project is to create a database system that allows archeologists to perform interactive analyses. “We will create a compositional query language that will allow archeologists to build sophisticated queries from simple parts so they can access the information they need without having to be computer scientists.”

Ross’s longer-term goal is to apply the distilled wisdom obtained from this project to develop a query system infrastructure. Such an infrastructure would allow the rapid deployment of interactive query systems in other domains (such as human anatomy) given just the domain-dependent information.

Of the SEAS faculty, only Versteeg thus far has made the trek to Amheida, which is a 13-hour drive from Cairo. Before taking their respective research work on location, Allen and Feiner will refine their tools on a site that is closer to home. “Before we go to Egypt, we will use the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as a test bed to refine our tools,” said Allen. “We will be using our scanning lasers and recovering interior and underground data. We will start in April with a new scanner and begin in the choir area,” he said. This work is being done in close collaboration with Prof. Stephen Murray of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, who is an expert on St. John the Divine.

For Feiner, one advantage to using St. John the Divine is the treasure trove of existing documents. “There was so much political intrigue,” said Feiner, “with one architect replacing another, and many changes in plans. We have documentation for the design contest organized for the cathedral, the revisions to the winning entry, the cathedral’s later redesign, and its convoluted construction history. For example, we are interested in using augmented reality to make it possible to look up at the Guastavino tile dome originally built as a temporary roof over the crossing, and instead see the tower that was intended to be there. The fascinating thing about this technology is that it can allow you to experience different alternatives in the context of the actual cathedral.”

Allen has effectively synthesized these strains of independent and divergent research within the University and is credited by his colleagues in the School with putting it all together and making it work. “I didn’t believe it would happen, but it did,” said Versteeg enthusiastically. Ross was equally vocal on the effectiveness of the team. “I am really excited about working on this team,” he said, “We have been working together for about six months and are very cohesive. I’ve been on several teams before and I am very pleased to serve on this team.”


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