Historical Documentation at Its Finest

Executive Interview: Elizabeth Lee,
Director of Operations, CyArk

CyArk is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Oakland, California. Its mission is to document the world’s heritage sites in 3D. CyArk was founded because its founders, Ben and Barbara Kacyra, were deeply impacted by the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. Anyone who has experienced the horrors of war is keenly aware of the fragility of historical treasures. CyArk uses 3D imaging technology to create a digital museum of the world’s historical sites. We spoke with Elizabeth Lee, Director of Operations at CyArk to learn more about its mission and how they bring more awareness to places and treasures that have de ned the human experience.

LBX Why is 3D imaging of historical sites so important?

LEE Documenting historical sites in 3D and creating a searchable archive accomplishes two very important goals. First, the data derived from 3D imaging informs conservation efforts. There are thousands of sites around the world that are at risk of environment degradation, vulnerable to destruction by military activities, and in need of restoration and repair. 3D imaging provides superior engineering- grade documentation. Second, 3D visualizations are an educational tool, and a means of sharing these sites with a much wider audience than the students, travelers and tourists, photojournalists, and retirees that have the luxury or resources to visit these sites.

Here is an educational example. In California there are 21 missions between Sonoma and San Diego. Every 4th grader in California is required to study these missions. There are 500,000 4th graders in the state of California. It is neither practical nor cost e ective for each 4th grader to visit all the missions on a eld trip. Many schools and communities don’t even have a local mission to visit. Our 3D imagery of the missions brings awareness to these historical structures and provides greater access to the sites than just those individuals who are able to physically visit them. We have 1.5 million visitors to our website every year and growing. We are reaching new audiences every day.

FIGURE 1. Sydney Opera House. Graphic courtesy of CyArk.
FIGURE 1. Sydney Opera House. Graphic courtesy of CyArk.

LBX Who are these virtual visitors?

LEE We have an incredible range of people who visit the website, from professionals in the conservation field, to university students to teachers who use the data to develop material for their curriculum. We also have a tremendous general interest following from individuals interested in history and culture. People who are searching for these historical sites nd our website, which continues to stimulate attention and new interest.

FIGURE 2. Mount Rushmore 3D image and photograph. Graphic courtesy of CyArk
FIGURE 2. Mount Rushmore 3D image and photograph. Graphic courtesy of CyArk

LBX What are some of the projects or sites CyArk has imaged?

LEE There are many – almost 100 to date. But one I am particularly fond of is a project we did for the Hopi Tribe. The Hopi have a number of beautiful and culturally significant rock art sites, but one in particular was falling victim to defacement. The Hopi wanted to share their art with the world, but didn’t want more physical visitors. The art is now protected, and more people have access to it virtually then ever before.

“Location or geospatial technologies are incredibly powerful. There is so much more to them than targeted advertising.”

LBX Tell me about the Sydney Opera house.

LEE We recently completed the capture of the Sydney Opera House as part of our Scottish Ten project. The Scottish Ten is a multi-year program we have worked on with the Scottish government. It is really an incredible program in that the government of Scotland has committed to not only capture the most significant sites in Scotland, but also contribute to the e orts to capture a site in five additional countries.

LBX How do you determine the sites that you scan?

LEE  Thus far we have worked closely with our partners to help us in selecting sites as well as compiling existing information into our archive. Moving forward, we have developed a CyArk 500 advisory council to determine criteria for sites to be included in the 500. We have challenged ourselves and our partners to scan 500 sites in ve years. It is a big challenge but one that we think we can accomplish.

LBX What is the long-term goal of CyArk?

LEE  Our goal is to become the archive for the digital record of the sites and locations that represent our shared human history. We want to be a resource for a new kind of instruction and education. We want to be a trusted and reliable source for historical information; for us that starts with geometry. By understanding the geometry of structures we can accurately capture data for engineering and restoration purposes, but we can also tell new stories.

With the baseline of accurate data, we can develop it further to tell new stories. For example, we recorded and tagged the locations of Japanese confinement sites in California. We then linked our spatial data with audio history of interned Japanese Americans, which is really rich in emotion and personal history. We then turned that interactive experience into an iPad app, creating a whole new way to experience the history.

FIGURE 3. Mount Rushmore 3D print. Graphic courtesy of CyArk.
FIGURE 3. Mount Rushmore 3D print. Graphic courtesy of CyArk.

LBX What technology do you use for the 3D imaging?

LEE We have been very fortunate. We have been supported by the 3D scanning industry. Leica, Topcon, and Faro have all donated or made equipment for laser scanning available to CyArk. Autodesk has also been a huge supporter on the software side. We focus on securing the right technology for each individual project. As a result, we are always on the cutting edge of 3D imaging for our projects. IronMountain donated two petabytes of data storage. Urban Robotics worked with us to use a drone for photogrammetry on a site in New Mexico. These are just some examples of contributions.

LBX You mentioned how inspiring your work is at CyArk. Can you give us some examples?

LEE Location or geospatial technologies are incredibly powerful. There is so much more to them than targeted advertising, which is not very inspiring. We are working with a group of blind technologists to bring our 3D data to life via 3D printing. There are 5 million people without sight in the United States. We were able to create a highly detailed, miniature replica of Mt. Rushmore to demonstrate the possibilities within the blind community. Now the blind and disabled can experience Mt. Rushmore. That is very inspiring.

We are really a source of innovation on 3D imagery; we have one foot in the door of technology and the other in archaeology. It’s a fascinating and exciting combination. The skillsets needed for documenting heritage sites are transferrable to industry. For example, they can be used to document a hotel. There are a lot of opportunities to contribute and engage with this technology. We are all looking for ways to make our lives more meaningful.


Elizabeth Lee
As CyArk’s Director of Operations, Liz oversees CyArk’s projects from inception to final web dissemination and outreach. A Silicon Valley native, Liz has been involved with laser scanning since 2004 when she began scanning with a Cyrax 2500. She has been responsible for managing large programs, such as the 5-year Mt. Rushmore digital preservation project, the Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Church and Cloister of St. Trophime in France, and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon in Iraq. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Liz has extensive experience in working with foreign governments including Mexico, Scotland, India and Jordan, and in coordinating with local partners to communicate their cultural stories through digital preservation. Originally trained as an archaeologist, Liz has a passion for early Neolithic heritage sites such as the Scottish Ten site of Skara Brae in Neolithic Orkney. Standing atop Lincoln’s head at Mt. Rushmore remains one of her highlights at CyArk.