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Alumnus Rick Carron contributes to Idaho Virtualization Lab at the Idaho Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University

March 2, 2016
Samantha Chaffin

Travis Helm (MS Geology at ISU) scanning a elk's back bone. You can see the digital image on the laptop as the real object is being laser-scanned.

POCATELLO — Idaho State University alumnus Rick Carron is helping to make it possible for today’s ISU students to gain experience in a unique and specific field at the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory at the Idaho Museum of Natural History.

“Rick’s contributions are allowing our students to do an incredibly cool, unique and useful project,” said Frank Stewart, senior development officer for the College of Science and Engineering at ISU. “That project is virtualization.”

Carron, who now lives in Altadena, California, grew up in Pocatello and graduated from ISU with a bachelor’s degree in biology. His interest in the museum began at a young age after he found an amphibian and took it to the museum to find out more about it.

“I ran into Dr. Edson Fichter, who later would become my zoology professor, and he told me what the amphibian was and he was very interested in my curiosity,” Carron said. “From there, I became an unofficial collector for him. I collected small animal specimens and he taught me to prepare those specimens for the museum.”

Carron continued working with the museum throughout his youth and during his time at ISU. In 1986, after the death of his father, Carron created a memorial in the form of an endowment that he chose to place in the museum.

The Idaho Virtualization Lab at the Idaho Museum of Natural History began in 2003 with a push from Ralph Chapman, a former faculty member at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. Over the years, the lab has continued to grow and expand thanks in large part to generous donors, like the Hitz Foundation and Carron, who support the mission of the museum and the lab and provide funds for students to gain real-world experience with the software and technology used in it.

One such beneficiary of Carron’s endowment is ISU graduate student Travis Helm who is one of several students and museum employees working to scan all of the modern mammal and bird material in the Idaho Museum of Natural History’s collections to make it available online.

The lab uses laser-based scanners that measure the distance from the laser to the bone or object. The light comes from the laser and the software and laser measure the return distance to create a live, digital image that is built before the technician’s eyes.

“The primary thing we’re doing as a lab is taking physical objects, like fossils and artifacts, for example, and turning them into three-dimensional digital objects,” said Leif Tapanila, director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History.

According to Tapanila, there are a few different applications and reasons behind creating those digital objects.

“Fundamentally, as a museum, we have stuff—physical stuff—and we’re charged with keeping it forever and also with bringing it to the public,” Tapanila said.  “So, in one fell swoop, by digitizing it and making it into a three-dimensional object, you can archive it so that physical likeness is captured forever and you can also distribute it online and make it accessible to anyone in the world, even if they can’t make it to Pocatello.”

Aside from those two key applications, there are also scientific and research applications for virtualization that further the physical objects. This also makes for a richer, enhanced experience to bones and collections that provide a window into what they were actually like.

“Once you get all of the skeletal elements of an animal scanned in, you can reconstruct it and in a digital environment, you can make muscle attachments and you can actually do some modeling of the animal and how it actually functions,” Tapanila said. “You can’t really do that with the physical objects.”

Another benefit of the 3-D scanning technology being used by the lab is that it is a non-contact replication method, as opposed to past methods of replicating subjects, which included pouring rubber over the subject and pulling a mold. This non-contact method allows a virtually risk-free means to replicate fossils, bones and other artifacts as opposed to pouring and pulling physical molds of the objects. The accuracy of the technology is also unmatched.

“With virtualization, the laser light we use to scan is a low-intensity light source that isn’t doing any damage to the subject,” said Tapanila. “You could scan something a million times and it’s not going to affect it, which is a real benefit for the archival side of things.”

The lab is one of a very limited number of labs like it in the United States. The Smithsonian Museum and only a handful of other museums have similar labs, which lends to the considerable volume of calls the museum has received from others looking to replicate its setup. 

“Often, when we talk about the fairly large start-up investment to replicate our lab, museums end up asking us to scan their objects for them since we’re such a well-oiled machine at this point, and we’ve gotten several contracts doing that,” Tapanila said. “There’s a huge demand for physical objects and museums that want this kind of resource for themselves, but in addition to that fairly significant capital investment, you also need human beings who know how to use this technology and that’s what our lab specializes in. It’s a real asset to the area.”

“The truth of the matter is the museum is not adequately funded as an entity of the state of Idaho,” Carron said. “We need outside money in the way of endowments and gifts, but there’s also a commercial opportunity to be had. There are some very intelligent and creative people in the museum who I understand have been creating some interesting and fantastic creatures on their own based on their fossil collection and those are the types of things that end up on the movie screen.”

Carron notes the accurate biological depictions in the blockbuster hit “Avatar,” directed by James Cameron, as an example of a film application of the Idaho Virtualization Lab’s work.

“Avatar created a biological world that was so amazing to me that it held my rapt attention throughout,” Carron said. “I was constantly looking for the birds, the plants and the animals. They were not of our world, but they were accurate. They were accurate biologically in many ways and this is what movie makers like. They don’t want clunky looking monsters and strange looking creatures that don’t make sense. This is an instance where we can combine science and art. We’re ready to show what we can do and hopefully it will attract attention and hopefully it will bring in some work in the future.”

Tapanila also sees the potential to attract more people to the museum’s physical displays through the virtualization project.

“I think there was an initial concern by some that virtualization spelled the end of the physical museum,” Tapanila said. “I honestly don’t think that would happen, people still want the real thing. More than that, who in the world of nearly 7 billion people know about Pocatello and our museum unless we put it up online and make it accessible? By doing that, the chance of people around the world discovering what you have is that much greater, and if they have the opportunity to visit, it’s that much more likely that they will.”

The lab recently acquired a new, handheld scanner that can capture a broader range of subjects, including people,which wasn’t possible before. One application for this technology is the fitting of clothing or the fitting of prosthetics.  The lab could scan an individual’s arm, for example, and get the measurements for a prosthetic from that 3-D scan.

“That’s an area we’re really interested in developing,” Tapanila said. “Again, we’re the only lab in an enormous area capable of capturing that information so we’re interested in partnering with medical services if there’s a need we can address. There’s certainly demand for it and, locally, there’s probably not a source to get scans of live people with this type of technology.”

Currently, CT scans are used for many of these applications, but those scans come with a radiation risk to the subject in addition to being of a lesser quality and greater price than what can be produced with the lab’s handheld laser technology.

“I’m very pleased that Leif Tapanila is acting as the director of the museum,” said Carron. “He’s got a lot of energy, he’s intelligent and he’s pragmatic. He’s going to do good things for the museum and I want to support that as much as I can. I will always want to help the museum if I can. It’s very important to me.”