Geo Week News

July 13, 2012

This laser scanning thing might be catching on with the dinosaur guys

Those of you who heard Philip Manning’s keynote address on the use of 3D imaging in his paleontology work at SPAR International (and you can watch it here if you didn’t) may have been thinking, “wow, this guy is a real innovator – but this has got to be a pretty out-there application.” If so, looks like you’re wrong.

Paleontologists’ affinity for 3D scanning has managed to make the front page of Yahoo today, with an extensive story posted by originally. It contains suppositions like the following:

Laser scanning will likely become as common as microscopes in paleontology labs, Fisher said. “Probably the day will come when most labs have access to have a high-quality digitizer,” he said.

Perhaps future paleontologists will have to provide hyperlinks to digitized versions of their fossils with every paper they publish, Lacovara said. That will improve the scientific process of verifying others’ results, he said.

First of all: Exactly. I love it when people outline perfectly the value proposition of 3D data capture so succinctly: “Think my interpretation of what I dug up is wrong? Well, take a look at the scan and tell me what you see, smarty pants.” (Perhaps scientists are more decorous than that – it’s hard to say.)

Second, though: We continue to see fields where 3D data capture is an OBVIOUS upgrade on the way things are currently being done. If the way you’re making replicas of fossils is by plaster casting and what not, I mean, the scan-to-print workflow has got to just blow your mind, right?

Maybe there’s still a cost hurdle to overcome. Not everyone can just run out and buy a laser scanner, a bunch of software, and a 3D printer and start cranking out dinosaur robots (seriously, read the article, that’s what Kenneth Lacovara at Drexel wants to do), but when you consider university budgets nowadays, what’s that package cost? Maybe the tuition of four kids for a year? I think most universities could probably make it happen relatively quickly. 

So, why hasn’t there been a run on scanners thanks to universities with paleontology departments? There’s probably still some education that needs to be done. Even this Lacovara story is relatively old news (ABC wrote up basically the same story back in February, before Manning even gave his talk at SPAR), but that doesn’t mean everyone has heard it before. 

Like people in business, many researchers and research departments can get a little too wrapped up in their own research and not exactly peruse all the periodicals and published reports quite as devoutly as they maybe could. But the story will get out, and scanning fossils and artifacts dug up from the ground of all kinds will become commonplace. 

Just give it time.

• Bonus dinosaur story: Phil Manning’s U of Manchester colleague Bill Sellers got some pub back in June for using laser scanning (the blue hue tells me he was rocking a Z+F) to better determine the weight of dinosaurs. Turns out they were slightly less ginormous than we thought. Pretty cool. (And, no, there’s no truth to the story that laser scanners can help you lose weight, too.)

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