LiDAR as Art

Jefferson Searle and his team at Meridian Engineering, Inc. captured the Tree of Utah and the Sun Tunnels using LiDAR technology. They submitted an image of the Sun Tunnels to the 2016 LiDAR as Art: Winter Solstice contest and they won. I wrote an article to accompany the winning image–the original article is published here. Scroll down to see the pictures I took along the way.

LiDAR to Perpetuate Beauty: Scanning the Sun Tunnels and the Tree of Utah

Utah is covered in works of art: beautiful mountain vistas, weather-hewn arches, man-made marvels, and so much more. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the people of Meridian Engineering have fallen in love with Utah’s beauty. However, there are billions of people who will never travel to Arches National Park; they will never hike the slot canyons, fish our streams, or race along the Bonneville Salt Flats; they will never stand in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Most people will never have the opportunity to see these works of art, but Meridian would like to change that: They have decided to use LiDAR to document a few of these hidden gems every year.

“Here at Meridian, we are proud of the beauty of our state,” Meridian’s LiDAR Manager Jeff Searle said. “This beauty is worth sharing . . . why not share it with people who can’t see it for themselves?”

The LiDAR equipment at Meridian is regularly used for local surveying projects, but Searle and a few others up for a desert adventure decided to scan two of Utah’s more obscure landmarks to preserve them for decades to come, and to tap into LiDAR’s more artistic side.

The Tree of Utah

In the middle of the desert between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Wendover, Nevada, stands a landmark called the Tree of Utah. This 30-year-old structure breaks up the monotony of a long, straight stretch of I-80 and draws a bit of color to the salty desert plain.

The creator of the Tree of Utah is Karl Momen, a European art prodigy and renowned painter and sculptor. While visiting the United States, Momen elected to drive from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco rather than take a plane. As he drove the 100-mile stretch from Salt Lake City to Wendover, he felt inspired to create a landmark that would enliven its surroundings.

The Tree of Utah stands 87 feet tall, with six spheres affixed to branches and three coconut shell–like structures on the ground surrounding the tree. Years after creating the Tree of Utah, Momen described his work as “a symbol of preservation and survival that also represent[s] the essential beauty of the American nation.”

When the Meridian team arrived at the Tree of Utah, they found a fence surrounding the structure with a warning to beware of falling debris. After 30 years, the Tree of Utah was slowly falling apart, making Meridian’s mission a time-sensitive one.

“You don’t know how long some structures are going to stick around,” LiDAR Project Manager Marshall Burt said. “It’s good to preserve it, to have it for future generations.”

The Sun Tunnels

The Sun Tunnels, created in 1976 by Nancy Holt, are comprised of four concrete tunnels, each 18 feet long and nine feet in diameter. There are holes six to eight inches in diameter drilled into the top and sides of the tunnels, representing the Capricorn, Columba, Draco, and Perseus constellations, respectively. The most impressive thing about the Sun Tunnels is that on the Summer and Winter Solstices, the rising sun is framed by one pair of tunnels and the setting sun by the other pair.

The Meridian team arrived at the Sun Tunnels just in time to catch the setting sun. The view was breathtaking. The Sun Tunnels are the only point of interest in the small valley where they reside. Because the tunnels were created to focus on the environment, the observer is encouraged to examine their surroundings in a new light.

The Meridian team began scanning immediately, capturing several photos of the setting sun and exploring the tunnels between scans. The last of the light disappeared during the final four scans inside the tunnels so no imagery was collected. After a cloud-to-cloud registration, the intensity image of the inside scans was modified to create the effect of purple light emanating from the tunnels. A picture of the horizon was brought into the scene as a background before the final rendering. We set out to scan the artwork of the desert, and we were able to see the potential LiDAR has as an artistic medium.

“LiDAR as an art form is a new thing,” LiDAR technician Brian Boehmer said. “There is a lot more technology that is becoming more common, making it more economical to turn it into an art form. We can broaden our uses of our LiDAR equipment.”

After such a successful trip, the Meridian team is looking closely at other stunning and fragile wonders of Utah, deciding which monument they should scan next.

“People in the office are excited for the next adventure,” Searle said. “We’re already making plans.”

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