Digitizing dinosaurs

Queen’s-developed software improves the storage and accuracy of digitized dinosaur specimens

Junhui Long, MSc ’13, wrote the software that repairs the holes in the 3D scans of the dinosaur specimens.
Junhui Long, MSc ’13, wrote the software that repairs the holes in the 3D scans of the dinosaur specimens.
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Researchers in the School of Computing are often at the forefront of new technology and innovation, but one group’s current project is downright prehistoric.

A group of students ranging from undergraduates to post-doctoral fellows have helped create software that compresses and stores digitized dinosaur bones. The technology aims to lead to more accurate casts of dinosaur specimens, such as the ones shown in museums.

The team of seven developed the software for Research Casting International (RCI), one of the largest sources of dinosaur specimen exhibits in the world. The software compresses the data and fills in the holes that are lost during scanning for RCI.

RCI President Peter May said when you scan something that has a rough surface, like dinosaur specimens, you end up with shadows that lead to holes in the model and prevent 100 per cent of the object from being scanned. The software Queen’s developed has hole-filling capabilities, which help fix this problem.

“The scanning is making the mould and then we have 3D printers and routers which make the cast, which becomes the hard copy,” May said.

The project, which began in spring 2011, is led by David Rappaport, computing professor and associate dean in the School of Graduate Studies.

“The data we have are meshes — that’s like a wire frame digital description,” Rappaport said, adding that the museum-quality specimens often comprise very large digital files, which can be difficult for RCI to distribute.

He said the software he and the team of students developed compresses the dinosaur fossil data in the same way an MP3 compresses an audio file.

“We compress [the dinosaur specimen data] to about 25 to 30 per cent of its original size,” he said.

The project was enabled by a $50,000 grant from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev), the money from which went toward hiring students.

FedDev partnered with Queen’s to provide up to $750,000 to support agreements between the University and small- and medium-sized businesses, such as Trenton-based RCI. This project was one of 14 to receive funding.

Since receiving their initial grant, RCI subsequently received a $62,000 grant from the National Research Council to hire three more students and continue the project.

Junhui Long, MSc ’13, was responsible for writing software that repairs holes in the mesh, which are created when the scanner “can’t see behind corners or little nooks and crannies,” according to Rappaport.

Long said he enjoyed putting his skills to use on the project.

“Before I went to Queen’s, I thought I would do something theoretical,” he said. “It not only requires knowledge from academic studies, but from practical knowledge and it’s very exciting.”

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