Category: News Releases

The Fall 2015 issue of American Archaeology (Vol. 19, No. 3), has a feature story titled “Here Come The Drones,” exploring the possibilities, challenges and overall impact of drones on the field of archaeology. The article is featuring our work and visually highlights results from our 2014 Napa Valley post-earthquake reconnaissance research with focus on historic landmarks.

Professor Kuester presented an invited talk at Cinegrid 2015, titled “From Immersive Frames to 3D Scenes,” covering next generation 2D and 3D imaging and modeling techniques for the rapid creation of 3D scenes for use in immersive environments. The talk explored the potential of ultra-resolution, spherical, stereo image and video acquisition enabled by our CAVEcam, CAVEcam-X, Camlot and SENSEI imaging systems, for the creation of highly realistic and accurate environments. Environments suitable for data exploration and analysis supportung our heritage engineering research, while also creating content and unique opportunities for the coming tidal wave of personal Virtual Reality systems, including head mounted displays (HMDs) such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR, among others.

San Diego, Calif., Dec. 10, 2015 — The city of Granada, Spain is steeped in cultural heritage: home to the Alhambra and to world-famous Moorish and Morisco architecture, it is a perennial destination for tourists and sightseers. But for five days this past fall, the city also attracted culture seekers of another kind: researchers attending the 2015 Digital Heritage Conference, including a team from UC San Diego’s Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3).

CHEI researchers at Ecab, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

CHEI researchers at Ecab, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Organized by the Division of Arts & Humanities, the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Qualcomm Institute, the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), CISA3 has made its name as a hub for cultural heritage engineering—writ broadly, the application of fields such as robotics, computer science and virtual reality to the study of cultural sites and artifacts. According to CISA3 Director Falko Kuester, the annual Digital Heritage Conference is “the top-tier event” within this area of study, and CISA3’s researchers “stood out” there for the quality, quantity and diversity of their accepted papers.

Among the research papers emerging from UC San Diego and presented at the conference were those spanning robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles for remote imaging and digital preservation of endangered sites, as well as hyper-spectral imaging techniques for the analysis and preservation of paintings. Other papers focused on photogrammetry techniques for underwater cave documentation and investigation, digital and cyber-archaeology, cyber-infrastucture for open source data sharing and more.

“It is great to see that our students truly have become the domain experts in areas of inquiry that they present,” said Kuester.

Kuester credits CISA3 with helping San Diego “establish and grow its role as the global leader for cultural heritage engineering,” and noted that the students’ work in particular has caught the eye of industry professionals. Two of CISA3’s students have been recruited to lead software development teams at San Diego-based educational media companies, or “edutainment” companies.

“I believe this truly speaks to the breadth and depth of talent being created,” Kuester said.

Representing CISA3 in Granada were Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Thomas E. Levy, who is the director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability as well as the associate director of CISA3; CISA3 Special Projects Coordinator Dominique Rissolo; and graduate students Mike Hess (Structural Engineering), Matthew Howland (Anthropology), Brady Liss (Anthropology) and Samantha Stout (Materials Science and Engineering), along with two of Levy’s former students, Matthew Vincent and Neil Smith. Structural Engineering Professor Tara C. Hutchinson, Qualcomm Institute engineers Eric Lo and Elioth Fraijo, undergraduate Dominique Meyer (Physics) and graduate students John Mangan (Computer Science), James Strawson (Mechanical Engineering), Vid Petrovic (Computer Science and Engineering) and Christine Wittich (Structural Engineering) also had work accepted at the conference.

The CISA3 papers presented in Granada included:

  • “Digital Field Recording in the 4th Dimension: ArchField C++ and OpenDig” (Neil Smith and Matthew Vincent)
  • “Fusion of Multimodal Three-dimensional Data for Comprehensive Digital Documentation of Cultural Heritage Sites” (Michael Hess, Vid Petrovic, Dominique Meyer, Dominique Rissolo and Falko Kuester)
  • “GIS-Based Mapping of Archaeological Sites with Low-Altitude Aerial Photography and Structure from Motion: A Case Study from Southern Jordan” (Matthew Howland, Brady Liss, Mohammad Najjar and Thomas E. Levy)
  • “Multidisciplinary Investigations on the Byzantine Oratory of the Catacombs of Saint Lucia in Syracuse” (Antonino Cosentino, Mariateresa Galizia, Cettina Santagati, Carmelo Scandurra, Mariarita Sgarlata and Samantha Stout)
  • “Novel Application of 3D Documentation Techniques at a Submerged Late Pleistocene Cave Site in Quintana Roo, Mexico” (Dominique Rissolo, Alberto Nava Blank, Vid Petrovic, Roberto Chavez Arce, Corey Jaskolski, Pilar Luna Erreguerena and James C. Chatters)
  • “One Man’s Trash: Using XRF to Recreate Ancient Narratives from Metallurgical Waste Heaps in Southern Jordan” (Brady Liss and Thomas E. Levy)
  • “Optimizing UAV Systems for Rapid Survey and Reconstruction of Large-Scale Cultural Heritage Sites” (Dominique Meyer, Elioth Fraijo, Eric Lo, Dominique Rissolo and Falko Kuester)
  • “A Proposal for A Digital & Physical Installation of Techno-Scientific-Art Research: Open Access Antiquarianism at the Digital Heritage Expo 2015” (Ashley Richter, Michael Hess and Vid Petrovic)
  • “A Role-based Methodology for Data-Driven Workflows, and Nephelai: A Scalable Infrastructure which Enables It” (John Mangan, Michael Hess and Falko Kuester)
  • “UAV-Based Post-Disaster Assessment of Cultural Heritage Sites Following the 2014 South Napa Earthquake” (Dominique Meyer, Michael Hess, Eric Lo, Christine E. Wittich, Tara C. Hutchinson and Falko Kuester)
  • “The WAVEcam: Ultra-High Resolution Imaging of Paintings” (Samantha Stout, James Strawson, Eric Lo and Falko Kuester)

Following are two examples of the work presented by CISA3’s students and researchers in Granada.

Modeling One of the Americas’ Oldest Church Sites

To Mike Hess, one of CISA3’s greatest strengths is its inventiveness: the center is unafraid to tackle the field’s technological obstacles head-on.

“A lot of people just use technologies, but we actually develop solutions,” said Hess, who is a trainee in CISA3’s Training, Research and Education in Engineering Cultural Heritage Diagnostics (TEECH) project, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program. “It’s not just about using technologies; it’s about developing new ones and figuring out how to integrate them all into one usable source of data.”

The paper Hess presented in Granada reflects this fact clearly. Using data from CISA3’s 2014 trip to Ecab in Quintana Roo, Mexico—the site of what is thought to be one of the first churches in the Americas—Hess modeled the benefits of stitching together data from multiple imaging techniques, enabling researchers to construct a fuller 3D model of a given archaeological site.

Abandoned since the 1640s, the Ecab church site has weathered disasters both natural and manmade: its location at the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, jutting out into the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, makes it vulnerable to hurricanes, while looters are believed to have stolen the church’s altarpiece. Today the site is so remote and difficult to access—it requires a two-hour boat trip each way—that the CISA3 team was able to spend only two days there.

CHEI researchers at Ecab, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

CHEI researchers at Ecab, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

In cooperation with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the government agency responsible for the nation’s cultural heritage, Hess and the other CISA3 researchers set out to document the Ecab site in its entirety, using a variety of imaging techniques to create a comprehensive 3D model with which researchers could analyze the site remotely. To do so, they used terrestrial laser scanning, sometimes called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a time-consuming but highly precise technology in which a scanner aims lasers at a building or structure to collect distance measurements. The fine-grained, high-resolution data acquired through this method allow researchers to construct detailed 3D point clouds that represent the scanned building. CISA3 also made use of faster and more affordable (but less precise) ground- and aerial-based photogrammetry techniques like Structure from Motion (SfM), which can combine pictures taken from different angles into photorealistic 3D models.

Because of their limited time at Ecab, the CISA3 team could not finish documenting the full church site, leaving them with incomplete, but complementary, data sets. Faced with this state of affairs, Hess and other researchers at CISA3 set about finding a solution. The most effective plan was to use their terrestrial laser scans as a sort of scaffold onto which their photogrammetry data could be projected, filling in the gaps of their missing information and adding more realistic visual effects into the bargain. Their final model comprises one billion data points.

Hybrid rendering of data collected at Ecab.

Hybrid rendering of data collected at Ecab.

For Hess, the benefits of combining these data sets are manifold. For one thing, it’s invaluable to have such a large amount of data in one model: “Being able to render that in real time is extremely useful, and you don’t see it in commercial systems.” For another, a 3D model of fused data sets can allow researchers to maximize the time they spend analyzing their data; time spent in the field can be shortened accordingly.

“The data [in the fused model] allow you to virtually be on site and take measurements to one-millimeter accuracy,” said Hess, “so they enable analysis and interpretation—and also eliminate the need to travel.”

With the full 3D model in hand, Hess’s hopes are set on creating an effective conservation plan for the site.

“We’re just waiting for the go-ahead from INAH,” he said, “and we’ll do whatever they need to facilitate their decisions.”

Documenting an Underwater Cave for Remote Analysis

Not far from Ecab on the Yucatán Peninsula lies Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave most famous for housing “Naia,” a 12,000- to 13,000-year-old female skeleton and the oldest near-complete set of human remains discovered in the Americas. It’s also a place of ongoing research for CISA3 Special Projects Coordinator Dominique Rissolo, who is co-director and project archaeologist for the site.

Like Ecab, Hoyo Negro is remote and difficult to access; only highly trained divers are capable of navigating it. Unlike Ecab, however, the cave’s conditions—dark, flooded with water, topographically complex—are fundamentally unfavorable to documentation, complicating efforts to construct a 3D model of the site for remote analysis. At times, its inhospitable conditions even endanger those who attempt to explore it, and the time divers can spend in the cave (“bottom-time”) is accordingly limited. Though prior work at the site has allowed researchers to map the cave, date Naia’s remains, study the skeleton’s mitochondrial DNA and reconstruct the site’s evolution over millennia, existing existing photogrammetry and SfM methodologies have proved insufficient for constructing the 3D model researchers seek.

For Rissolo and his fellow researchers at CISA3, however, this 3D model will soon become a reality.

“Our field lead on the underwater photogrammetry work at Hoyo Negro, Alberto Nava, is working closely with Vid Petrovic, Sabrina Trinh and our CISA3 team to process and visualize data in ways that make remote analysis of the site possible,” he said.

Rissolo was a key player in the acquisition of this data. The paper he presented at the 2015 Digital Heritage Conference establishes new methodologies for the site’s photogrammetric documentation, offering unique guidelines for three scales of imaging: site-scale, feature-scale and object-scale. They are designed pragmatically, with an eye to supporting the researchers’ most specific interests, while simultaneously defending both the site and its investigators from damage.

“It is not practical, given limited bottom-time and the consequences of frequent adjustments to diver buoyancy, to produce a model of the highest resolution and the highest level of coverage for the entire site,” said Rissolo.

This work is further complicated, he added, by the inherent technical demands of photogrammetry. “Working in a completely dark environment makes it very difficult to compose shots,” he said. “Divers have to manage both lights and strobes in the process, and they have to ensure a systematic approach to image capture. This is very difficult while floating in a black abyss and managing their life-support systems.”

CISA3’s integrative cultural heritage engineering methodology allows for full imaging of the site, as well as for precise records of specific elements.

“The goal is to cover as much bottom as possible at a reasonable resolution,” he said. “The idea is then to focus more intensive and detailed photogrammetric recording efforts on those deposits or objects of specific interest to the anthropologists, paleontologists and geologists on the project.”

It’s a development with great potential to accelerate research on Hoyo Negro—and, Rissolo added, CISA3 will continue to play an integral part in it moving forward, bringing remote analysis of the site within reach.

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox
(858) 246-0353

Related Links

Digital Heritage 2015

The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego (Calit2), now known as the Qualcomm Institute (QI), is celebrating its 15th anniversary.  Chancellor Khosla and dignitaries including former Governor Gray Davis, Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm Co-Founder and former Chairman Irvine Jacobs and UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering Dean Pisano, united for a reception and showcase of QI innovation.  At the event, Davis and Calit2 Director Larry Smarr discussed the past and future of the Qualcomm Institute, with particular emphasis on the groundbreaking potential of the Pacific Research Platform (PRP) – a new National Science Foundation grant that uses fiber-optic networks to connect researchers at universities throughout the West Coast, enabling them to share “big data” at an unprecedented speed. One of the proof-of-principle, cyber-infrastructure sites for PRP that is already fully operational is CHEI’s WAVElab, hosting the Wide-Angle Virtual Environment (WAVE), a one-of-a-kind testbed for BIG-VR.

During the event, Professor Kuester presented a lightning talk about CISA3’s transformative impact and CHEI’s disruptive and synergistic work across Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, as well as Music (STEAM). Following the vision of CHEI’s integrative, cultural heritage engineering methodology, the talk outlines a closed-loop, data acquisition, curation, analytics and dissemination approach, highlighting what is possible when you are an innovator and producer of technology, rather than just a consumer. As always though, our students and trainees were the true stars of this presentation.

The visual documentation of seafloor habitats is playing an increasing important role in understanding habitats like coral reefs. Our new collaboration with the Sandin Lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is focusing on developing a pipeline to automate the data collection and annotation of large swaths of coral reefs. Our invited paper at this years International Conference on Underwater Networks and Systemsdiscusses the issues related to collecting this data, the challenges with processing the data, and the potential to automate the process through computer vision and robotic systems.

The Triton Magazine covered our robobtics (drones) research and development in a recent article titled Life Among the Drones. The article highlights CHEI and Engineers for Exploration (E4E) alumni Radley Angelo’s experiences in developing some of our early drone platforms and covers recent work at the Maya archaeological site El Zotz in Guatemala. Current CHEI and E4E undergraduate Dominique Meyer also provides his thoughts about the direction of drone technology.

Curators at the San Diego Natural History Museum have enlisted University of California, San Diego archaeolo- gist Dominique Rissolo as a content expert for a new exhibition offering insight into the ancient Maya.

The limited-engagement exhibition, “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed,” opens today at the Balboa Park museum and will be on view through Jan. 3, 2016. The 10,000 square foot exhibition – the largest of its kind to be presented in the United States – delves into the history of the ancient Maya, who thrived in regions of Belize, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador from A.D. 250 to A.D. 800. It features more than 200 authentic artifacts, dozens of interactive components, life-size replicas of temples and the iconic sculpted monu- ments known as stelae. “This exhibition gives an unprecedented view of the kinds of artifacts and Maya pottery that you would never be able to see outside the country of Belize, and some of these pieces are on view for the first time,” says Rissolo, who is Special Projects Coordinator for the Cen- ter of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute.

Rissolo, who has been conducting research in the Maya area for nearly 25 years, says the exhibition offers “a sweeping view of a civilization and its contributions to humanity in a way that’s never been done before.”


(left) Maya mosaic mask and (right) Maya Huipil, both from “Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed”. All photos courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum

Rissolo was recruited by The Nat to work with staff on textual and outreach materials for the exhibition. He’ll also give a lecture in Sep- tember on his work at CISA3 to digitally document and visualize coastal caves that were frequented by the ancient Maya in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico.

“We’ll be sharing with folks some of the work we are doing here at CISA3 to use laser scanning and structure-from-motion imagery to create digital fly-throughs of some of the cave sites we’re documenting through our project on Maya cave architecture,” he said, adding that the lecture will also feature some of the research conducted by CISA3 undergraduate Dominique Meyer, graduate student Michael Hess, the Qualcomm Institute’s Eric Lo and CISA3 alumna Aliya Hoff.

Rissolo’s research isn’t the only Maya-related work being pursued at the Qualcomm Institute: QI research scientist and National Geo- graphic Emerging Explorer Albert Lin, UC San Diego Professor of Computer Science Ryan Kastner and QI Principal Design Engineer Curt Schurgers recently returned from the Mesoamerican archaeological site – formerly an ancient Maya city – known as El Zotz. Their research into the early iconography of buried temples, as well as the footprint the an- cient city had on the landscape, is focused on building a better understanding of how an ancient dynasty established itself as a seat of power within the complex milieu of ancient Maya city-states. A peek into that history is also on display in The Nat’s exhibition, which was created by the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Museum of Science, Boston. It features interactive elements that offer visitors the opportunity to decipher ancient symbols, explore tombs and investigate the Maya approach to technology.

The Maya, for example, lacked wheeled vehicles, beasts of burden or easily trav- eled rivers, but developed an entirely unique written language using more than 800 heiroglyphs and built reservoirs and extensive road networks. They created a dental technique for drilling precise holes into teeth and were also – to use a phrase from the exhibition – “relentless renovators,” layering new buildings over old ones.


Maya funerary urn

“They also developed the concept of zero independently of the Old World and were astute sky watchers,” adds Rissolo. “They created a concept for permutating calendars and were able to reckon notions of cyclical time and linear time in ways that still fascinate us and are still the subject of scholarship today. They were also keenly aware of the movements of the sun, moon, and planets and were able to very accurately predict eclipses in different parts of the world that they couldn’t see.”

Featured throughout the exhibition are replicas of ancient monuments and temples bearing the the famous iconography of the Maya, which often depicts mythological and narrative subjects like serpents, birds and jaguars. The exhibition notes that the Maya burned 1,000 acres of forest for every building coated in stucco – deforestation that might have influenced rainfall and caused water shortages that (combined with mutually destructive warfare) led to the civilization’s downfall. But the Maya also showed a capacity for sustaining themselves and thriving in otherwise marginal landscapes, says Rissolo.

Maya crocodile effigy

Maya crocodile effigy

“The Maya were probably more astute and disciplined managers of their environment than we give them credit for, and there were pe- riods of Maya history where they were doing things right,” he adds. “These are the people who first cultivated some of the most impact- ful domestic plants in the world. Think about all of the food Meso- americans gave us: Chocolate, tomatoes, chili peppers. Corn was developed by the Mesoamerican cultures, and now the entire planet has been impacted by corn. These are people for whom the word industrious is an understatement.”

The exhibition and Museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Tickets to the exhibition range from $11 to $29 and advance purchase is recom- mended. For additional information about the exhibition, visit sdnat. org/maya or call 877.946.7797

Media Contact

Tiffany Fox
(858) 246-0353

Related Links

Maya: Hidden World Revealed

UCSD composer offers new work in ArtPower Filmatic Festival program

By James Chute | 8:27 p.m. May 2, 2015 | Updated, 1:27 p.m. | May 7, 2015, San Diego Union Tribune

Imagine if you could hear a painting. Not in your mind, but physically hear the sounds a painting might make. Composer Lei Liang is working on that, with a team of collaborators at UC San Diego.

Liang, who was one of the three finalists for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music (for “Xiaoxiang,” a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra), is composer-in-residence at UC San Diego’s CALIT2 (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology).

Saturday, as part of ArtPower’s Filmatic Festival at UC San Diego, Liang reprised “Hearing Landscapes,” a cutting-edge, multimedia presentation that he premiered at the Qualcomm Institute in April.

The project also involves visual explorer Falko Kuester, principal collaborator and audio software developer Zachary Seldess, cultural heritage engineer Samantha Stout, and software and system developers Greg Surges, Chris McFarland and Eric Hamdan. It aims to take the ink brush paintings of 20th century Chinese artist Huang Binhong, extract detailed information from the paintings through advanced scanning techniques, and translate that “big data” into music.

+ Read the full article at the San Diego Union Tribune

Dominique Rissolo is the newly hired Special Projects Coordinator for the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) at UC San Diego, and he has embarked on a new search for funding and collaborations that will ensure the Center’s many cultural heritage projects not just survive, but thrive. Rissolo says CISA3 researchers are finding that “a lot of off-the-shelf tools really aren’t appropriate for scientific field research, which speaks to the expertise of our students and the unique contributions to cultural heritage research that are possible through computer science and engineering. Another big challenge is the integration of sensors with the aerial or underwater platforms. This is not just about creating pretty visualizations of objects and sites, but collecting data – in a variety of modes – that have real diagnostic and analytical value.” Underwater systems, Rissolo notes, must be particularly robust. “If it gets wet and goes deep,” he says, “you’re eventually going to lose it. In the world of underwater systems, ’two is one and one is none’ because the failure rate is so high and the loss rate is so high. A big part of what we must do is try not to lose the vehicles, which means they need navigation systems that allow us to control the vehicles remotely.” The problem, adds Rissolo, is that the overwhelming number of systems out there, drone wise, are built for hobbyists: “Our students are really focused on developing the kinds of systems that are designed for scientists.”

San Diego, Calif., Feb. 19, 2015 — Late last year, two University of California, San Diego students set out for Florence, Italy, to diagnose a patient that had no prior medical record, couldn’t be poked or prodded in any way, and hadn’t been in prime condition for more than 800 years.

The ‘patient’ in question is the Baptistery of St. John, a basilica that sits in the Piazza del Duomo, adjacent to the famous Florence Cathedral (known colloquially as “The Duomo”). The students, structural engineering Ph.D. candidates Mike Hess and Mike Yeager of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3), had been invited by the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to conduct a structural ‘health assessment’ of the building, which was completed in 1128 and was the site where the Italian poet Dante and many other notable Renaissance figures were baptized.

Their resulting 3D digital model depicts a building that has aged gracefully, yet warrants careful and continued evaluation – not surprising considering the Baptistery has experienced several hundred years of settling and is situated in seismically active zone.

But there were indeed big surprises in store for the team, surprises that might have gone unnoticed were it not for the “high-tech gaze” of the advanced multi-spectral, high-resolution tools they used to see behind walls, underground and directly into the past.

Warmth, light and history


CISA3 students Mike Hess (left) and Mike Yeager constructed a comprehensive 3D model of the interior, exterior and facade of the 5,500 square foot Florence Baptistery as well as certain areas of the Duomo.

Before they could look into the past, the team’s first order of business was to create an accurate record of the Baptistery’s current condition.

Using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) laser scanning, ultra-high-resolution photography and thermal imaging techniques, Hess and Yeager constructed a comprehensive 3D model of the interior, exterior and facade of the 5,500 square foot Baptistery. The result includes stunningly realistic 3D models of the Baptistery, its marble sarcophagi and baptismal font, computed from thousands of photos using photogrammetry techniques. Those techniques are spatially referenced to the one and half billion 3D data points captured by the LiDAR scanner.

“This is a building constructed hundreds of years ago for which there are few original plans or drawings,” notes Yeager. “One of our goals was to create a record, which is an exact representation of the Baptistery as it stands today and will serve as a critical reference, tomorrow, next year or a hundred years from now.

“The point cloud data – taken from 80 LiDAR scans – becomes the geometric scaffold for the high-resolution thermal imagery,” Yeager continues. “The data can be projected into 3D space so we know exactly what we’re looking at spatially. The drawings are spatially accurate and we can now pull a measurement for any part of the building we want to look at, down to the millimeter.”

To obtain the thermal imagery, Hess built a custom mobile robotic thermal camera platform that captures thermal data at unprecedented resolution. These high-resolution images reveal, for example, that some of the tiles in the Baptistery’s mosaic ceiling – rumored to be the inspiration for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” – are separating from the structure in ways not yet visible to the naked eye.


Deviation analysis of the Baptistery’s ceiling reveals information that is critical for the understanding and long-term stewardship of the historically and culturally significant site.

Adds Hess: “It essentially stitches many images together into a big mosaic of the structure at the level of detail we need to inspect it for structural flaws, see where areas have been restored or map areas of moisture and cracks.” Hess is also a scholar in the CISA3 Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, supported by NSF, which prepares Ph.D. scientists and engineers from a variety of disciplines to solve complex research problems of scientific and societal significance at national and international levels.

Hess and Yeager’s work was funded by CISA3 (which is based at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute), as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Friends of CISA3 and a grant from the UC San Diego Los Alamos National Lab Engineering Institute by way of the U.S. Department of Energy. It was preceded by previous imaging done by CISA3 researchers in collaboration with its long-term local partners from Editech and Geostudi Astier. Cultural heritage engineer Maurizio Seracini, who has provided CISA3 with a home base for its research activities in Florence for the better part of the past decade, also collaborated with the team.

Their resulting digital model, says CISA3 Director Falko Kuester, allows the viewer to “literally teleport to these places at photorealistic levels and to see what otherwise cannot be seen, revealing information critical for the understanding and long-term stewardship of this remarkable site.”

Adds Yeager: “A darker shade of marble might indicate, for example, that the slab was replaced. That’s not a structural application, but it builds out the history of the structure. It’s a way of seeing underneath the surface to get the true state of conservation of the structure.”

Getting to the bottom (and top) of it


Hess and Yeager used a laser scanner to document the excavation under the Baptistery floor and also visualized, for the first time, an unexcavated portion of Roman ruins from the 5th century A.D.

Another of the team’s objectives was to take a more literal look underneath the surface of the building – right down into the dirt. Beneath the tiled floors of the Baptistery lie the ruins of a Roman temple built in the 4th or 5th century A.D., part of an ongoing excavation that began in the 1970s.

With the help of Seracini, Gianfranco Morelli from Geostudi Astier and IGERT-TEECH trainee and big-data visualization expert Vid Petrovic, Hess and Yeager used ground-penetrating radar to visualize, for the first time, an unexcavated portion of the ruins. Their data reveal what is hypothesized to be a staircase, two vaulted rooms and a series of walls and hallways.

“We’ve been able to visualize these ancient spaces in a way that’s never been done before,” says Yeager. “Now we’re able to use this technology to reference that data in space and ‘fly’ from the domed ceiling of the Baptistery down into the dirt to the ancient rooms beyond.”

In addition to the remarkable discovery of the Roman rooms, Hess and Yeager also determined from their scans that the floor above the excavation site differs dramatically from that above the unexcavated ruins – but not in the way one might expect.

“In the area that has been excavated, there now is a lot of open space, just air,” Yeager explains. “One would intuitively think the floor would be more prone to settling over the void space, but by analyzing the laser scanning data of the floor we see that’s not what’s happening.”

“There is a very dramatic drop in the vertical elevation of the floor, but it’s over the unexcavated portion,” Hess continues. “In the excavated area the floor of the Baptistery has been converted into a reinforced concrete slab, and we’re postulating that when concrete slab was placed over the excavation site, it over-stiffened that part of the structure, causing it to settle more slowly.”

Yeager holds up this counter-intuitive fact as an example of “the true power of diagnostic imaging techniques” that the CISA3 team is developing.

“These tools are allowing us to verify and validate what’s going on and provide answers we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to,” he says. “Now we can ‘fly’ around the model and visualize loading paths in a way that we could not by naked-eye inspection.”

Protecting and preserving the past

With the data from the Baptistery as a proof-of-concept baseline for doing large-scale structural health assessments, Yeager and Hess also got permission to capture data from the Baptistery’s larger and more well-known neighbor, the Duomo.


Deviation analysis shows the floor of the Baptistery is not uniformly level — but not in the way the engineers expected.

Says Hess: “The Baptistery was the testbed for the methodology, but the Duomo is a huge structure, and we want to set the foundation for documenting it. We’ve proven that this is the way to do it and now we can expand it and go bigger.”

With the data they captured from the Duomo (which required standing in the precarious far side of the plexiglass that keeps tourists from falling to their deaths), Hess and Yeager created a digital model of the dome, as well as the space between the two shells of the Dome that contains a staircase tourists climb to overlook the city from its highest point.

With 3D data they’d captured at the Baptistery, they measured structural deviations from an idealized curvature of the cathedral’s dome.

“This kind of measurement gives us an idea of how the dome is surviving,” Yeager explains. “We can see from the laser scanning analysis that the weight of the dome is causing an outward thrust at the bottom. For years, people have speculated this, but we were able to actually quantify it and visually show that there’s a definite eight centimeter bulge.”

“Our ultimate goal,” he continues, “is to take a structure and discretize it into a bunch of little bitty pieces to build a numerical model. We can then load the structure any way we like and use modeling techniques to determine real forces and stresses that are being absorbed by the structure. We could have a model of the Baptistery or the Duomo – structures susceptible to earthquakes – and see how these buildings would respond in real life, which could help us to design a potential retrofit.”


Members of the CISA3 team, including CISA3 Director Falko Kuester (in white shirt), met with Franco Lucchesi (in black jacket) to demonstrate their visualization of the Florence Duomo and Baptistery on the QI WAVE.

Franco Lucchesi, president of Opera Del Duomo Firenze, recently visited CISA3 in San Diego to see the data that the team obtained come to life in its advanced visualization environments, including the WAVE, a 70 megapixel resolution virtual reality environment that provides an unprecedented degree of presence (the feeling of ‘being there’). Remarking that CISA3’s cultural heritage engineering methodology is uniquely positioned to provide important insights into the understanding and preservation of these monuments, Lucchesi invited the UC San Diego team to further expand its collaboration with the Opera Del Duomo.

“Being invited to work at this remarkable site – while bringing stakeholders, researchers, practitioners and the public together in pursuit of ‘creating a future for the past ’ through science and engineering – is truly a privilege,” says Kuester. “The diverse, interdisciplinary and highly professional student teams working on this and other CISA3  projects are our pride and joy.”


A visualization of the Florence Duomo as seen on the QI WAVE virtual reality tool, a 70 megapixel resolution virtual reality environment that provides an unprecedented degree of presence.

In the meantime, Hess and Yeager say the opportunity to play even a small role in this important conservation effort is an honor and a privilege.

“The feeling of walking in with the lights off, having the place to yourself, being in this giant amazing space – it never gets old,” says Hess.

“These structures are monuments of what human beings can create,” adds Yeager. “They are stunning and gorgeous and beautiful. Being able to play a small part in potentially conserving these timeless jewels of human craftsmanship is time really well spent.”

Media Contacts
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo