2017 Finalist: ASTech Awards
Digitizing the Physical World, One 3D Model at a Time
3D modeling, digital graphics, and computer visualizations are becoming nearly indistinguishable from real life. Today we can see fantastic visuals in film and video games that are created entirely with computer-generated models.
Replicating the real world in such detail can require vast amounts of time and money, as well as years of specialized training by dedicated teams of 3D modellers. But
Dr. Faramarz Samavati, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Calgary, intends to change all that by making the digital content creation accessible to everyone.
Samavati’s research focuses on geometric modeling, computer graphics, visualization, and 3D imaging. His goal is to provide robust technologies to create digital content. While his work involves complex mathematical modeling, the technologies he is developing all have practical applications.
Samavati says, “I like math, but I like that math can be used in real problem solving and can contribute to our society.”
The digital world, literally
One of Samavati’s projects, Digital Earth, involves centralizing vast amounts of data about the Earth into an application where the data can be rapidly retrieved, analyzed, and visualized in 3D, simply by selecting an area of the Earth.
With more than 200 Earth observation satellites and many other data capture technologies generating live images of the Earth, Samavati saw a need to create on the fly big data integration into a common media, called Digital Earth, so that it could be used to improve understanding and decision making about the Earth. A disruptive method to achieve Digital Earth is through a Discrete Globe Grid System (DGGS). In DGGS, the surface of the Earth is discretized into regular cells. Each cell is indexed and used as a place holder for the data related to that cell. “These cells could be small or could be large, depending on the target resolutions.”, explains Samavati. By using these techniques, Samavati and his graduate students provide the user with vast amounts of information at nearly any scale, across the globe.
The Digital Earth project has also led to the development of rigorous tools for visualization and 3D content creation. In one example, a Google Earth view of Yellowstone National Park was compared to a visualization created by Samavati’s team which was inspired by a painting of the park by H.C. Berann. The result was a modern, interactive, and real-time panorama map that can be utilized and explored by anyone. Google Earth presents a flat view. In Digital Earth, with complex calculations and data processing behind the scenes, the user sees a dynamic 3D rendition of the natural world with depth and texture.
“My team has created such an effect in real-time for any region of the Earth,” Samavati explains. “It is not just one picture; it is a live fly through of the region.”
Samavati says using Digital Earth can inform and assist in all kinds of real-world decision making. “We need to know (the Earth) better and we need to make our daily decisions based on the real data which we have about the Earth,” says Samavati. “This could be in daily life applications for you and me, but also it can help us in a global manner to make decisions about the Earth in a better way.” Samavati explains that Digital Earth can visualize global warming data, for example, in an understandable and comprehensive manner. He adds, “That helps our policymakers and our politicians understand the impact of the decisions related to the Earth. To me, Digital Earth can play a very important role and I’m excited to contribute (in this way).”
Making the third dimension pop
Another of Samavati’s research projects makes it easy for anyone to become a 3D modeller. This is done using software called Naturasketch, developed by former PhD student Dr. Luke Olsen. “The problem we wanted to solve was hoe to create detailed 3D models from simple interactions like sketching,” Samavati says. “For example, in the movie industry, it is a very time-consuming task to create the final model from a concept sketch. It also requires a particular skill set which is not something everybody has. We wanted to open this up for the public so everybody can create detailed 3D models.”
Using their simplified program, the user can apply a few strokes to a photograph to create a 3D model of the image.
“This can even be used by kids at school,” says Samavati. “They can start from a simple 2D drawing. Then they can use our system to create the 3D model. Then they can use a 3D printer to create the real object. When they touch the object they can learn better, so touch adds to their learning experience.”
Medical Imaging and Visualization
Samavati has also helped develop medical software tools that transform CT and MRI data into 3D models. These models can be used to better visualize medical datasets which improves the diagnosis of medical conditions.
From Digital Earth to Naturasketch and other 3D modeling software technologies, Samavati is helping to create a world where 3D digital models are accessible and useful in various practical applications in a variety of industries. The commercialization of Samavati’s technologies also provides the added benefit of diversifying Alberta’s economy. On the research side, Samavati and his graduate students have published many peer reviewed publications and won multiple best paper awards.
For Samavati, improving society through digital visualization solutions comes from the innate enjoyment of discovery and the desire to make this technology accessible.
“I enjoy research and become very excited when you solve something which is new, novel, and hasn’t been done before. It’s a very rewarding experience,” explains Samavati. “I personally also like teaching and explaining complex subjects in a simple, intuitive, and visual manner. I think because of that, I have been very successful in recruiting a large group of very talented graduate students.”
Samavati concludes, “I find it very satisfying to be able to contribute to our society and our industries.”