Interactive 3D Model Could Revolutionize Real and Virtual Visitor Experience For Manzanar

Editor’s Note: All photographs and video clips below represent the status of the project detailed in the story as of the publication date. They are not intended to represent the final product. As such, they could contain errors, inaccuracies or omissions that will be addressed as work on the project continues. All images and video in this story are © 2012 CyArk. All rights reserved.

A view of the barracks at Manzanar, as it looked in July 1944, in a 3D computerized model.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
LOS ANGELES — The Manzanar National Historic Site’s virtual museum, accessible via their web site, is a treasure trove of information that can be used to learn about Manzanar through the use of text, images, video, slide shows and more.

Those who make the trek to Manzanar, located approximately 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles in California’s Owens Valley, between the towns of Independence on the north, and Lone Pine on the south, can get a very good idea of what someone’s barrack looked like, and what some of the gardens were like during World War II, when more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were unjustly incarcerated there.

Of course, the views that Manzanar visitors get today are different from what conditions were like during World War II. But what if you could put yourself into the exact area where a family member’s barrack was, or see what one of the gardens looked like during World War II, complete with all the vegetation?

Even more, what if you could do that without leaving the comforts of home?

All that and much more will be possible late this year when CyArk releases an interactive 3D model of Manzanar, as it was in July 1944.

On July 23, 2012, CyArk, a non-profit organization based in Oakland, California, and the Manzanar National Historic Site, sponsored a preview of their project at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.

“CyArk is a non-profit organization founded in 2003, and is dedicated to the digital preservation of cultural heritage sites,” said Elizabeth Lee, CyArk’s Director of Operations. “Since then, we’ve done over 70 projects worldwide, from Pompeii (Italy), to Mayan temples in Tikal (Mexico), to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, to Mount Rushmore in the United States.”

“We use a number of new technologies to capture sites in high definition, and in 3D,” added Lee. “Then, we use a number of emerging technologies to share that information with the public, as well as to produce tools for site managers, and those who are charged with the care and protection of these places.”

Screenshot showing a pond between barracks at Manzanar.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
“On the technical side of things, we use a terrestrial-based LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) system, [also known as] a 3D laser scanner, to collect the data. We also collected GPS data, and other types of survey data, in order to position buildings accurately.”

Funded by a $240,611 grant from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program (JACS), CyArk is developing 3D models of the Topaz concentration camp and the Tule Lake Segregation Center, in addition to Manzanar.

“When we learned of the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, we thought this would be a great opportunity to take some of the technologies we use on other sites, and use them to help tell the story of sites that aren’t, physically, as visible anymore, and how we could use these new technologies to engage with these places in a way that’s never been possible before,” Lee noted. “When we decided to put in an application for this grant program, we wanted to align it with our mission, which is to create a 3D library of important sites around the world. The library is freely available to the public on our web site, which has a very wide audience.”

“We thought it would be a great opportunity to leverage that tool, which is already in place, and there are new technologies that we could bring to the project, going beyond just capturing the physical remains at the site, of which, there are very few,” Lee added. “Using that as a foundation, and combining that with historic resources, such as maps, photographs, and even oral histories, we can virtually reconstruct the site in 3D, and in an immersive, interactive environment.”

But why were only Manzanar, Topaz, and Tule Lake chosen?

“The reason those sites were chosen was that we had some very positive conversations, and we were able to garner support from those particular sites,” Lee explained. “But in later phases, we want to include several more as part of the program.”

“The emphasis of the grant program is to recognize this historical event as a very significant event in American History, especially as it relates to civil liberties and democracy,” Lee elaborated. “The grant program wanted funding to go to recognizing these sites, and the history around them, to protect them, and interpret them for the future.”

Interpretation and dissemination of information are the most significant components of the project.

Screenshot of the cemetery at Manzanar, looking northwest.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
“Our program is really aligned with those interests, in that using new platforms, whether it’s the [World Wide] Web, or mobile devices, we have a way to reach a much wider audience than would be able to make it out to the site,” said Lee. That’s a really important part of the project. We want to use this as a platform to reach people with the story of the incarceration of over 110,000 Japanese Americans, and I think digital technology can do that in a way that some of the traditional methods can’t—they’re at a disadvantage because of the reach and dissemination [capabilities]. That’s one of the paramount interests, to be able to tell the story more widely.”

“Second to that is the ability to create a richer experience for people who do want to learn about this,” added Lee. “Maybe they already know about the events surrounding Executive Order 9066, but want to go a little more in-depth. Maybe they want to learn about where their parents or their grandparents lived. We want to be able to create a very different experience on that level.”

“We’re going to have tools, like rosters from the camps that we’re working on. People will be able to search for their family member’s names, and if we have the information, see the block and barrack that they lived in, and then, be able to go there in the 3D model to see what it looked like, where it was on the site, how far they might have needed to walk to get to the mess hall, or to go to other areas of the camp. By creating this 3D reconstruction, we have a way to reach a little more in-depth into some of the history, and personalize it a little bit.”

Les Inafuku, Superintendent, Manzanar National Historic Site, indicated that the CyArk model is expected to be a tremendous resource for Manzanar and its visitors, whether they actually make the trek to Manzanar or not.

“With the icons you could click on, you might pull up a segment of an oral history interview, or a historic photo, or whatever it might be,” he said. “It’s going to make [the visitor experience] much more worthwhile.”

“We feel this is going to be one way for our remote, far-flung, geographically separated visitors to get a feel for what it was like to live here in camp, knowing that it’s not totally realistic, because the sounds and the smells aren’t there, and this rendered camp will lack the 10,000 internees,” he added. “But it still gives someone a feel for what it was like. It’s a way for us, since we are so remote, for the bulk of Americans to get a feeling for what Manzanar was, before they have an opportunity to come and visit. Hopefully, people would want to visit after [using the] CyArk product.”

“From my point of view, I hope it’s the thing that will tip the scales for someone who has not been to Manzanar, to experience Manzanar in this virtual way, from afar, before they might [actually visit the site]. Then there’s that whole ‘power of place’ thing, where it would make them realize, ‘we need to go to Manzanar, and experience it for ourselves.’”

But this project goes beyond that of distant visitors on the World Wide Web. Indeed, the widespread use of smartphones and tablet devices opens up a whole new frontier, in terms of the on-site visitor experience.

What it might look like for an on-site visitor to Manzanar who is
using the mobile version of the CyArk model on a tablet device.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
“We’re also leveraging mobile technologies, trying to take advantage of, not only the portability, but also the added features of the hardware, such as the accelerometer, and the compass [found in the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch from Apple, Inc.],” said Lee. “What we want to do with the mobile side is to key in some of the ‘Augmented Reality,’ and what we interpret that to mean is location-based data, so that if you’re standing in a location today, you would see an image of what it looks like today, to orient yourself. But then you could switch the view on your device, and instead of standing in the dry, dusty Merritt Park, as it is today, it would show you what Merritt Park would’ve looked like in 1944, and as you move around, the image would change with you [based on your movements through the site]. Through your eyes, you’d be seeing what’s there, in reality. But your device would be a window into time, looking back some sixty years.”

“One of the other things is to be able to display a map of the camp, showing the blocks and barracks in relation to the GPS {Global Positioning System] in your device,” added Lee. “Someone would be able to look at the map and say, ‘I’m standing in Block 16 right now,’ and then look at that barrack over there—’that’s where my grandparents were.’”

“That’s something that’s a completely personalized experience, because each user is going to take a different path, and see different things. That’s where the interactive capabilities, and the ability to choose your own path is really exciting with mobile devices.”

The mobile product may have the potential to revolutionize the on-site visitor experience at Manzanar. But Lee stressed that what CyArk is working on cannot replace actually visiting Manzanar.

“When we started talking about the opportunities for mobile devices, and mobile apps, one of the things that’s driving that is the idea that we do so much with digital technology, we feel strongly that the digital experience—seeing these sites on your computer [or mobile device]—is not going to replace going there,” she said. “But what it can do is augment an on-site experience, so we want to develop things that you couldn’t do on-site.”

Inafuku expressed similar concerns.

“I still fear that this might, in someone’s eyes, become the ‘be all, end all’ kind of thing for Manzanar,” said Inafuku. “I’ve always said that the advent of the personal computer was the death of the true park ranger.”

“Now, [rangers] spend too much time looking at a [computer] screen, as opposed to being out in our resource,” added Inafuku.

One comment that came up during the preview on July 23 was the fact that people were not present in the model, distorting what Manzanar was like during World War II.

“One of the challenges we have with building a digital model is to populate it, and to put the personal touches in it,” Lee noted. “We’re not including avatars, or animations of characters or people, [out of respect]. One of the challenges of that is now you have this huge site that doesn’t have that personal touch. It doesn’t have the human element.”

Merritt Park at Manzanar.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
“We’re trying to figure out ways to convey that, and people have given us some very good ideas on ways to do that in, not just a respectful way, but also a tactful way, such as integrating historic images that show people in [them],” Lee added. “Also, one of the things [that has a huge impact] is using oral histories—having the audio play over an animation, such as Merritt Park, where Sue Kunitomi Embrey [one of the founders of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, former chair of the Manzanar Committee, and the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site] is speaking about Merritt Park, so you have an individual giving their thoughts about a very specific element of the site, and we’re able to show that. We want to do a lot more of those, because it helps connect it back to the people. That’s the level we want to get to with this project.”

Inafuku called on families of those incarcerated at Manzanar to help.

“For fly over views of the camp, since each block looks identical, I’m hoping we can get historic photos coming out of the woodwork, if families have historic photos, whether it’s their parents, grandparents, or whatever, outside their barracks,” said Inafuku. “If we could get some details about individual barracks that we can incorporate, that would make it better.”

It’s All Just A Game…Sort Of

3D modeling. Augmented Reality. Location-based data. GPS. Interactive capabilities. Those are all terms that are probably very, very technical for many people, and might fly right over their heads.

But what might surprise you is that it’s all just a game.

Well, sort of.

CyArk’s 3D model is being created with tools that are primarily used to develop many of the computer and video games that are so popular today, whether they can be played on a personal computer, an XBox, a PlayStation 3, or an iPad, among many other desktop, console and mobile/handheld devices.

“We’ve constructed a number of the models using Maya (3D animation software), and then bringing that into [the] Unreal [Engine] and the [Unreal Development Kit],” said Lee. “That allows us to do more things with color and texture, add movement to the scenes, light the buildings, add moving water to some of the gardens, and clouds in the sky.”

Hospital complex at Manzanar.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
Although the Unreal Engine and Unreal Development Kit have been used to create games such as Medal of Honor Airborne by Electronic Arts, Mass Effect 3 by Bioware and Epic Games, or Infinity Blade by ChAIR Entertainment and Epic Games, among a plethora of other titles, do not make the mistake of thinking that what CyArk is working on is going to be nothing more than a toy or a game. Indeed, it is the use of game development tools that gives CyArk’s 3D model significant capabilities, far beyond what they could do without such development tools.

“Once we have all that built, we’re likely going to be publishing it using the Unity Engine, which is an interactive game engine,” Lee noted. “That will allow people to actually ‘walk through’ the site.”

The Unity Engine has been used to create popular games such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online by Electronic Arts, Skee-Ball by Freeverse, and Star Wars: The Quest For R2-D2 by Three Melons and LEGO, among many others.

“Rather than just have people experience it through an animated video, they can walk through, on their own path, and at their own pace,” Lee emphasized. “That will happen on the web site and via mobile apps.”

Research And Accuracy Are Key

Not having been involved with Japanese American confinement sites prior to their work on this project, CyArk staff had to do a tremendous amount of research before they even began their work on the model, but they made sure to seek help.

“We’ve been really fortunate to be able to pull in a number of different partners on this project,” said Lee. “The way CyArk works is that we’re a hub for this sort of work, and we try to pull in experts whenever possible. From the National Park Service, we’re working with the Manzanar National Historic Site, and the staff there are really experts on that site. At Topaz, we’ve been working with the Topaz Museum board, and we’re just beginning the work on Tule Lake, where we’re not only working with the National Park Service staff, but also the Tule Lake Committee.”

“We’ve been very fortunate to work with the staff at the Manzanar National Historic Site,” added Lee. “They’ve been so helpful with finding historic photos, or descriptions that help form the model. Everything, from the shape of window on a particular building, to the color of stones surrounding a certain element of the site, their attention to detail has been fantastic, and we’ve got a great team here that’s been very responsive to their requests.”

Overhead view of Manzanar.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
Lee indicated that CyArk welcomes input from the public, and would be especially interested in feedback from those who were incarcerated at Manzanar, Topaz and Tule Lake, or their families.

“What we’re trying to do is leverage people who have a great deal of expertise in this area already, but we’re learning so much here, internally, and we’re finding that the more people from the communities that we speak with, the better,” Lee stressed. “We’re learning all kinds of new things every time we have a public presentation, or even when we post a blog on our web site—we have people write in with comments. This has all been an incredible learning experience.”

Feedback would be especially helpful in making sure that everything in the model is depicted accurately, something that was, understandably, an issue with the Manzanar model when the project was in its infancy, and will likely be a challenge early on in the development of the Topaz and Tule Lake models.

Alisa [Lynch, Chief of Interpretation, Manzanar National Historic Site] has said that she’s really concerned about Tule Lake and Topaz, and I have to agree with her, because Lava Beds [National Monument, which administers the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument where Tule Lake is located], doesn’t have the staff,” Inafuku lamented. “That’s scary, because CyArk has the absolute best intentions, but their initial products, as gorgeous as they looked, were inaccurate.”

“It’s not [CyArk’s] fault that they were inaccurate, because, [as an example], their digital scanning, and their digital photos, included the two reconstructed barracks buildings [in Block 14 at Manzanar], so the red and white fire alarm (not historic; required by law) on the exterior wall on the east side was in [the scans and photos], too,” Inafuku added. “The modern day seismic metal straps (also not historic, but were required by law) were in all the barracks [in the 3D model] also. That was a real problem.”

“Even something like the exterior wall having tarpaper on it—[in the model], the first double door at the end [of the barracks] had tarpaper on the inside, too. It’s little things like that, if you don’t look at a particular screen with an absolutely critical eye, you’re going to miss some of these fine details that were included, but shouldn’t be there.”

It was not just features of the camp that had problems.

“We noticed that the mountains were wrong,” Inafuku noted. “We weren’t really looking at the Sierras. We weren’t seeing the mountains that we can see from Manzanar. But that was an easy correction for CyArk to make.”

Mount Williamson, the second-highest peak in the Sierra Nevada range behind Mount Whitney, is the most prominent mountain that can be seen from Manzanar. But in the early stages of the model, it wasn’t.

Another overhead view of Manzanar.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo courtesy CyArk
“You notice Mt. Williamson every day here, so when Williamson isn’t accurate, it stands out to you,” Inafuku added.

Other issues that CyArk and Manzanar staff continue to work on include the sandy ground at the site, and the vegetation.

“It’s looks like they’ve cleaned up the sandy substrate a little bit,” Inafuku explained. “At first, it was looking very rocky—cobble-sized, and maybe even larger, at times, so we’ll continue to pay attention to that. We’d also like to clean up the lawns [in the gardens] a bit, if there’s a way to do that.”

“Then there’s the trees,” Inafuku elaborated. “Since their digital photo was taken last summer, the locust trees are 2011 trees, as far as the size goes. How detailed do we get there? Do we try to get them to grab those trees and make them young saplings, or maybe a little larger? After all, we’re supposed to be representing July 1944.”

Lee emphasized that CyArk is dedicated to getting it right.

“We do see this as a work-in-progress, and we want to do our very best to display things accurately and sensitively,” she stressed. “[Towards that end], the feedback we can get from the public is going to be really important, not only on what we’ve done already, but also regarding what they might want to see next.”

The first version of the 3D model of Manzanar is scheduled to be released sometime in the Fall.

“We’re aiming for late Fall 2012, as the initial roll-out,” said Lee. “Based on the enormity of a site like Manzanar, and trying to interpret the time period of the Japanese American confinement sites, this is always going to be a work-in-progress. We really want to start releasing things, but not everything will be part of this first phase. We’ll have a good amount to show, and a good framework that can be added to over time.”

“We do want to [continue to develop this project beyond its initial scope],” added Lee. “Part of that is going to depend on the response from the community, and the direction from the community, in terms of what else we should be trying to accomplish.”

Inafuku can’t wait.

“I was really excited about it [at the beginning of the project], and I’m even more so now,” he beamed. “This is going to be a great, great tool to help our visitors understand.”

Gann Matsuda is the editor of the Manzanar Committee Official Blog.

Unattributed views expressed in this story are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.

Demonstration Video Clips From CyArk 3D Model

(DRAFT; not intended to represent final product)

Merritt Park


Block 14


Getting Off The Bus


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Creative Commons License The Manzanar Committee’s Official Blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Manzanar Committee Official Blog – Licensing and Copyright Information.

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