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A bridge between worlds

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Laura Marshall

On a former cattle ranch in Texas, the abandoned land is regenerating. The site is host to a number of wild creatures, from otters to feral hogs to Atta texana, the leafcutter ant. These insects farm fungus cultures to feed their larvae, cutting and carrying leaf and plant parts to their nests, which can grow as big as three-story houses, to make up the substrate for the fungus.

“We think of nature as exotic nature on the Discovery Channel, but there’s so much out here that we don’t really see,” said Carol LaFayette, artist and associate professor of visualization at Texas A&M University in College Station.


One version of the tunnel is ported to a large-scale immersive visualization system, essentially shrinking the viewer to ant size. The immersive system is now located in a lab in the Texas A&M architecture building and will be on display this month during the school’s research symposium, an all-day event in which faculty members share their peer-reviewed findings.

LaFayette and her collaborators used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to scan an Atta colony, then created two art installations: one for art galleries in Tennessee and Georgia, and one for SIGGRAPH 2008, Los Angeles, an international conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques. At this event, which was held in August, the group presented 3-D scanned images on an immersive viewing system.

Viewers “immerse” themselves in the Atta texana colony by wearing 3-D glasses and standing before a 170° display.

The raw GPR data was translated by geophysicist Carl Pierce, who is the Jeffrey Campbell Fellow at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He used T3D software by Research Systems Inc. to convert GPR images into 3-D surfaces, each associated with an integer from 0 to 255. Each integer was translated into a color for display on a computer screen and stored in a spreadsheet.

A custom program was written by then-graduate student Tatsuya Nakamura, who now works at Starz Animation in Toronto, to translate the data to a high-end 3-D modeling system. Images courtesy of Carol LaFayette, Texas A&M University.

Tatsuya Nakamura, who graduated from Texas A&M in 2006 with a master’s degree in visualization science and now works for Starz Animation in Toronto, wrote the program that created 3-D surface data from the spreadsheet data. Nakamura’s program used “marching cubes,” a computer graphics algorithm implemented with C++, and Maya 3-D graphics and modeling software. The images then underwent modeling, texturing and lighting to capture the look and feel of the colony’s tunnels.

The technical installation was displayed at SIGGRAPH 2008 in Los Angeles as the first noninvasive ant-colony mapping endeavor.

The installation is “presence sensitive,” LaFayette’s term for “interactive.” This was accomplished using Max/MSP/Jitter from Cycling ’74, an object-oriented programming language for real-time multimedia. The result is “a really nice blend of abstract art and natural science and data visualization,” LaFayette said.

“Visualization is a process which takes ‘science’ — computer science and engineering — as input and creates ‘art’ as output,” Nakamura said. “It is for me a bridge between ‘art’ and ‘science.’”


Individual sections such as this were smoothed and textured, and lighting was applied, by visualization graduate student Lauren Simpson.

Oct 2008
BiophotonicsConsumerexotic naturefungusindustrialplant partsPost Scripts

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