LOOK: Virtual reality and RiNo murals, united in your web browser

3 min. read
A 3D rendering of a mural in RiNo. (David Romero)

Love street art but hate going outside? We've got you covered.

Pardon the snark – this is actually pretty cool stuff. Press play and let it load until the image is sharp.

What you're looking at is a 3D model of one of the dozens of murals painted in River North, created by a recent Metro State University grad named David Romero. (I don't have the name of the mural's painter; let me know if you do.)

Play around with this thing for a minute. Swing the camera toward the wall – examine its textures and the subtle details of the paint. If you have a virtual-reality headset, you can actually insert yourself into the scene and look around.

You might call Romero a virtual space-maker, or a multi-dimensional archivist. He describes himself as an immersive photographer and a virtual reality developer. His objective is to preserve these ephemeral bits of art in a way that traditional photography doesn't.

"These canvasses get painted every year. Sometimes, taggers paint over it maybe even sooner than that. These things are only there for a while, and then the world starts wearing away at them," he said.

How does it work?

"I just kind of had these instances where I was hanging out and watching these two-dimensional canvases suddenly gain depth as the artists painted these murals," Romero said.

To capture that depth, he took hundreds of photographs of each mural with an entry-level DSLR camera. He then used software to analyze the images, comparing the places that the images overlapped in order to figure out how they related to one another, ultimately mapping the whole thing into three-dimensional space.

In photogrammetry, multiple photos are processed to create a detailed 3D model of a surface. (David Romero)

This process is known as photogrammetry. It's amazingly complicated stuff, yet it's getting more common all the time. Google Maps, for example, used it to create its new 3D visualizations.

Romero, meanwhile, wants to help artists and historians alike explore the technology's potential. He believes that these 3D models encourage people to explore and interact with art in new ways, especially when viewed through a virtual-reality headset.

Romero also has been introducing artists to the idea of working in digital 3D space. He estimates that he has had close to a thousand people use his VR rig to experiment with 3D art programs. (He's also looking for freelance gigs to do this same work – you can reach him at [email protected].)

"I’m one of those people who thinks we can encourage people to discover for themselves," he said. "Almost every time we put a new person through, we see a different reaction. They see a different thing about the program."

(Artwork in this model by Detour 303 and CK Spade)

What's next?

The renderings embedded in this post are just the beginning of what's possible. The images that Romero has captured could be reprocessed in the future to create much more detailed models, long after the murals are gone. Eventually, he wants to be able to add data about the physical properties of the materials, which could be used in ever-deeper simulations.

Meanwhile, I see a lot of potential for virtual reality in the community planning world. If you could allow a neighborhood to experience a new park in virtual reality, long before it was built, would they think differently about it?

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