VR to Move Our Heart—Project to 3D Digital Archive Earthquake Remains
The Tohoku University Museum
Since 2013, The Tohoku University Museum has been running an archival project to digitize the disaster remains of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 3D. The Museum 3D laser scanned (3D omitted from this point on) the disaster area to capture the earthquake remains before they were removed for reconstruction. The generated point cloud data was then processed in Elysium’s InfiPoints software. This data is then utilized by experts for further earthquake research, in educational material on disaster prevention for children, and for simulating experiences of being in disaster areas using the head-mounted display, MREAL, at workshops across Japan by exporting viewer files for MREAL from InfiPoints.
On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake hit and left northeast Japan severely damaged. Academic research institutes and museums were no exception. Important specimens and documents contained within both were severely damaged.
The Tohoku University Museum has been leading the palaeontological society of Japan since it was established and has been running a project to CT scan specimens and preserve them as 3D data.
After the earthquake, they made it their mission to rescue specimens from the earthquake’s destruction, collecting and preserving everything they could rescue for future studies. One day, when working in the fields of rubble, researchers noticed that the scenery was changing rapidly with reconstruction in full swing.
“Just like specimens and documents, why don’t we try to pass down our disaster experiences along with the state of devastation to the next generations? As the scenery changes, our memory weathers. We should keep a record of the earthquake remains in a way that conveys our first-hand experiences,” expresses Dr. Harumasa Kano of The Tohoku University Museum.
They proceeded to launch a project to preserve disaster areas and the remains of the Great East Japan Earthquake as 3D data to digitally archive them for the future.
Dr. Kano, who specializes in micropaleontology at The Tohoku University Museum, took the initiative to lead the project. At the beginning, in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, he had surveying companies laser scan the destruction’s remains.
However, the local governments expected survey results in a shorter lead time and with a more limited budget than expected. This necessitated Dr. Kano needing to borrowing a FARO 3D laser scanner from another laboratory at Tohoku University after the first year of scans. Many scans were completed all by himself, which sometimes took upwards of several days for him to complete. In addition to a tripod laser scanner, he also used a vehicle-mounted MMS (Mobile Mapping System) and a scanner drone.
“Pre-processing is essential for the utilization of point cloud data. I managed to survey large portions by myself, but the huge cost of outsourcing the pre-processing of the laser scanned point cloud data was a headache. This outsourcing was squeezing us between both our time and resource constraints. InfiPoints saved us from our bleak situation through its functionality to process point cloud data quickly and efficiently,” as Dr. Kano looks back.
By spring 2017, they had managed to capture over different 40 places, a great success for the project attempting to digitally archive the disaster remains.
“How can we further utilize this data to contribute to our society? For further earthquake research and true education on disaster prevention, we should establish a way to let researchers and those from other regions experience the earthquake first-hand,” posits, Dr. Kano.
They decided to continue using MREAL since they were already using it at the museum for their virtual exhibition of specimens. However, it quickly became apparent that it did not have capacity to handle huge amounts of point cloud data ranging from tens to a few hundred gigabytes.
“Elysium again supported us by enhancing InfiPoints to better support MREAL and allowing us to fully realize our project of passing our experiences on to the next generations. InfiPoints contributed not only to reducing the project’s lead time and the cost of the data pre-processing phase, but also to the achievement of the virtual disaster remains exhibition using a VR headset,” states Dr. Kano.
Dr. Kano and his team participated in various local events to exhibit the recreation of the disaster remains using MREAL giving visitors an opportunity to experience the tragedy first-hand.
One day, they happened to witness an unexpectedly touching scene after they started up the VR system. An elder lady from Tomioka-machi, Fukushima prefecture was viewing Koyasu Kannon Do in VR. She could view Koyasu Kannon Do from her town originally and after a few moments of viewing, calmly put her hands together to show respect to Buddha. Koyasu Kannon Do was dismantled later, but now still exists as digital data, which means so much for those who used to live in Tomioka-machi.
“I believe in the potential of digital reality. This project began as my research mission to digital archive these disaster remains for future earthquake studies and education on disaster prevention. But this Tomioka-machi resident taught me something even more important as a human being. A virtually replicated town is not just a medium to keep a record for the future but is also the recreation of a hometown that delivers memories of the past, of a reliable community, and of a symbol for the revival of the people in the present,” says Dr. Kano enthusiastically.
They also witnessed a lady crying tears of happiness. Using MREAL, she was able to visit her old house located in Tomioka-machi, Fukushima prefecture where the evacuation order was issued due to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station accident. She was saying that she never expected to return home in her lifetime.
The disaster remains exhibition using point cloud VR soon began taking place not only at Tohoku University, but also at many local community centers. Their exhibit had spread across much of Northeast Japan.
The news of their successful project also managed to reach the ear of the Minister of Reconstruction. The minister himself as well as multiple officials from the Reconstruction Agency came and viewed the exhibition at Tohoku University.
In February 2017, Dr. Kano and his team laser scanned Kiyotosaku Cave Tombs, a series of decorated ancient tombs dating back to the seventh century located within the evacuation zone in Futaba-machi, Fukushima prefecture. It is a national historic site but was closed to the public after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station accident.
They captured the entire tomb including the decorated murals, which might have deteriorated after years of evacuation, and the entryway to these murals. Dr. Kano and his team have continued to digitally archive cultural heritage sites across Japan utilizing their new cutting-edge technology to preserve them for the next generations.
By March 2017, six years after the earthquake, they had completed laser scanning all of their planned sites and had shifted to their next phase.
“We are going to accelerate the management and the further utilization of the obtained point cloud data,” states Dr. Kano.
E.g., for the earthquake studies, they expect to analyze point cloud data in InfiPoints to measure the height of the tsunami and calculate the force of the tsunami by comparing the distance between the disaster remains’ final location and its original location.
“Beside the research, it will also play an important role as material for students from all over the world. The next generations can experience true natural disasters, further research this data, and pass it down to their next generations. For those who survived the earthquake, it must be painful to view the disaster remains. On the other hand, it can be a good opportunity to look over the past and find hope in the future to view the scenery which has been changed a lot by the earthquake and through reconstruction,” Dr. Kano concluded.