Where Whale and Buildings Meet – Digitized Data

Digitized Data in the Realms of Paleontology and Architecture


Dan Edleson, Principal of STEREO, a company specializing in digitizing existing buildings, has written an exciting new story looking into ways technologies used for preserving buildings could translate into the field of Paleontology. In this article Dan not only explores what it would mean to create a WIM (Whale Information Model) but also how the AEC industry could learn from the innovations in other industries and how they are leveraging scan data.

In early 2005 I walked across an ocean floor housing some of the largest creatures in the history of planet Earth. I was accompanied by two other college age explorers, a pair of Brits I had bestowed with the thoroughly American nicknames Ty Cobb and Cy Young. Covered in desert dust we habitually downed swigs from the water-filled canteens draped across our shoulders, trekking through cavernous passes and taking refuge in the shadows. We never saw a single whale. 

Sometime between six and nine million years ago the waters of the Atacama receded, trapping the marine life that had flourished there. It exists today in what is termed a “rain shadow” due to unaccommodating winds from both directions. The once proud ocean has become the driest place on earth, so dry that the soil has been found to have similarities to Mars and NASA frequently uses the area to test its rovers. Long after the last whale, the Atacameño arrived, then mere millennia later the land was claimed by the independent nation of Bolivia before being usurped by Chile. Since the early 1990s the population has grown over 75%, primarily due to a booming tourism industry based on numerous opportunities for trekking and climbing what was once deep waters. With people have come roads. Many miles of desert land have been excavated, in the process uncovering some of the most astounding whale skeletons on earth.

I learned about these magnificent bones while listening to the book Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson, a leading paleontologist at the Smithsonian. While it was fascinating to learn that whales once walked on land—at one point they looked like giant dogs and then for reasons unknown adapted back to life in water—as an Architectural professional involved in utilizing 3D laser scans for building documentation the most intriguing piece of information was that Pyenson and his crew employed 3D laser scanning and photogrammetry to record the site layout and catalog the bones. I quickly became curious as to whether the original scan data was the final step or if further parsing was done to apply metadata and structure to the billions of digital points. 

I see this often with the work I do with Building Information Models (BIM) for Architecture and Structural Engineering: a laser scan gives you fantastically accurate information, but it is merely a hologram. You can look at it but can’t really interact with it in a coherent way until some form of translation is done. The typical process I take is to bring the raw scan data into a BIM program –I use Autodesk’s Revit, which is an industry standard – and start translating the points into more tangible objects the software understands such as windows, walls and doors. Once I have translated things thoroughly they are now tangible “things” I can attach metadata to, such as the manufacturer specs of a door, the material composition of a wall, or anything custom I wish to add such as the cost per unit of a piece of furniture.


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