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Digital Animals Populate the Forest in This Immersive 3D Scanned Installation

Universal Assembly Unit's 'Datum Explorer' combines point cloud data with a game engine to create an exploratory virtual landscape.

by Kevin Holmes
10 February 2015, 2:40pm

You won't find wild bears in the English countryside, but you will in this reimagined virtual forest, a 3D scanned version of woods near Battle in East Sussex, UK. The piece, called Datum Explorer, is a project by Universal Assembly Unit (UAU), the studio of architecture graduates William Gowland, Samantha Lee, Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, and Zhan Wang, who work in experimental animation, AV performance, and large-scale installations.

In July 2014, the group ventured into the woods and, using a standard LIDAR 3D scanner and binaural recording device, captured the forest as a dense point cloud and 3D stereo soundscape. "The site was methodically surveyed," UAU member Samantha Lee tells The Creators Project, "moving the position of the scanner and microphone in exact locations to create an overlapping three-dimensional data set of geometry, texture, and sound."

This dataset, plus a few additions, were combined with a game engine to create an exploratory digital woodland, what the artists call "part site survey and part game environment filled with elusive animals."

"LIDAR creates this beautiful ghostly rendering, one which evokes an almost cinematic quality," explains Lee. "You want to dive into it and explore it as a first person, hence where combining the game experience comes in. Game engines give the potential for non-linear storytelling and 3D interaction, turning it from being a static archive to a dynamic space. In the case of Datum Explorer, we created computer generated animals to turn it into a hybrid reality, between fact and fiction."

The interactive piece can be explored online or on your phone by downloading an app, which lets you journey around this digital pointillism, hearing exotic sounds and catching glimpses of fauna, colored red, through the trees.


Screenshot from the iOS app

The dataset was also turned into an installation for the elusive Datum Festival 2014, where it was projected back onto the actual woodland to become a fusion of spectral point clouds and physical space. The group say they wanted to detach the virtual environment from the screen and create an "immersive 'data atmosphere.'"

"An important aspect of the project for us was to address the multi-platform nature of space, so it could be experienced on desktops, mobiles, and a physical installation," explains Lee. "Each platform allows for a distinct kind of experience. For example, the mobile app allows for the game to be locative. We have a hidden layer, whereby if you go back to the original site that we 3D scanned, the trees explode into a colourful bloom—like a seasonal change triggered by your physical geo-location."

Datum Explorer

The project is ongoing, and with such a detailed dataset the possibilities of what they can do are legion. But for now, its current iteration as an online and mobile app means you can take a leisurely, rather otherworldly stroll through British woodland, from the comfort of your computer screen.

"We chose to record a natural environment to question how we might explore a kind of digital wilderness in the same contemplative mindset as we might a real landscape," Lee notes. "As an exploratory game, it isn't about goals and unlocking next levels, but just wandering or chasing animals through a simulated forest."


Panaroma of the actual woods


Datum Festival piece


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Click here to learn more about Universal Assembly Unit's Datum Explorer

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