Virtual Alma to stand in for UI grads' photos

Virtual Alma to stand in for UI grads' photos

URBANA — You can extend your arms out like Alma. You can look up at her. Toss your cap in the air and jump next to her.

"You just can't climb on her," said Robin Kaler, spokeswoman for the University of Illinois.

With the iconic Alma Mater statue missing from campus this year because of an extensive restoration, a diverse group of university employees have come up with an alternative for students who for years have stood in line on graduation weekend to get their photo taken with Alma Mater and her partners, Labor and Learning.

Their creation: an augmented reality Alma.

"It is quite compelling," said Alan Craig, a director of the augmented reality unit of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the UI's Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Sciences.

Students will be able to pose near the statue's pedestal and have their photo taken with an iPad or iPhone and there, next to them in the high-resolution photo, is a digital rendition of Alma Mater in all her bronze glory.

Craig said he believes this is the first time an augmented reality object has been rendered at such a large scale in the outdoors.

"It seems to be working well," Craig said after a demonstration for media on Wednesday. There are a number of variables, such as if it rains or is so bright and sunny it's hard to view the image on an iPhone or iPad.

The Lorado Taft statue, which dates back to 1929, was removed from its pedestal at the southeast corner of Green and Wright Streets in Urbana in August 2012. It was shipped to the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park to repair years of water damage and corrosion. After chemical analysis and X-rays were conducted, conservators realized the damage was worse than they thought. Those overseeing the project originally anticipated having the statue returned to campus for this year's commencement, but the group announced in March the statue must undergo more work.

"It takes time. We don't want to cause more damage by taking it apart in a hurry," said Christa Deacy-Quinn, who showed rusted bolts and washers at the Wednesday event. Deacy-Quinn, collections manager at the Spurlock Museum in Urbana who is advising the preservation and conservation process, said the statue likely will not be ready by the fall.

"But it should be back in time for commencement next year," she said.

In addition to the delay, the cost to preserve and conserve the 5-ton bronze statue tripled from about $100,000 to about $360,000.

When he heard the statue would not return in time for this year's graduation weekend, Dwayne Fitch, manager at the UI's Facilities & Services Document Services, started brainstorming.

"I tried to figure out how the department could help because as a longtime member of the campus community, I've seen people standing in line waiting for their photos," said the 25-year employee.

After dozens of ideas, he wondered, would a virtual Alma work?

"It was too enticing to not at least take a shot at it," Kaler said.

Joel Steinfeldt, academic brand manager with public affairs, got in touch with Craig.

He asked, Is it possible?

Craig's initial response was, "I don't think so." Then: "We must do this!"

Graphic designers, metalworkers, programmers, computer scientists and more pitched in to make the project work.

Travis Ross, manager of the UI's Visualization Laboratory, traveled to the Forest Park studio to take a three-dimensional scan of the statue. People took the data from that, created a model that a mobile device could process, and created a target poster that the device could recognize.

Here's how it works.

The target poster of the Alma Mater is attached to the real Alma Mater pedestal. The app on the iPhone or iPad recognizes the poster, then displays on the device a 3-D image of the Alma Mater. A graduate walks up and stands next to the pedestal. On the iPhone or iPad it looks as if he or she is standing next to the statue.

In the image, the statue will appear bronze, its original color. Currently, Labor and Learning have been laser-cleaned back to the bronze color, while Alma is still the greenish color many people are familiar with, according to Deacy-Quinn. Eventually the entire statue will be returned to the original color, and Deacy-Quinn said the university will maintain the bronze.

The process

The Alma Mater AR app is available for free from the Apple Store. In order for it to work, the app requires the on-site target, which is the poster image of the Alma set up on the pedestal. The target will be on the pedestal from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

On those days there will be about three people at the site helping with crowd control and shuttling people through the line. A wireless access point will be set up, so while people wait in line they can watch videos about the Alma Mater's history, the preservation project and other details. More information is available at where you can find links to additional photos and videos.

Once students get to the head of the line, if they don't have their own iPhone or iPad, they will be handed an iPad so they can see what the photo will look like. They'll move on to get the photo taken by another volunteer and then the photo will be uploaded to a Flickr site:


Missing Alma?

Here are some other photo opportunities available for graduating seniors (or returning alumni and friends and family) this weekend.

— A photo booth will be in the Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St., U, and will feature a backdrop of the Alma Mater. The booth will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

— Six-foot-tall plaster replicas of the statue, created by students in the College of Art and Design, will be set up during commencement weekend throughout campus: at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, 601 S. Lincoln Ave., U; the School of Art and Design, 408 E. Peabody Drive, C; Assembly Hall/State Farm Center, 1800 S. First St., C; on the Quad and on the north campus.

— Foellinger Auditorium at the south side of the Quad will have decorative bunting.

— Hallene Gateway at the southwest corner of Lincoln Avenue and Illinois Street in Urbana will have special landscaping.

— Students from the 1867 Society will be dressed as Alma, Labor and Learning and will be walking throughout campus on Saturday and Sunday and are available for a posed photograph.

— A "green screen" with an Alma background will be at the UI Alumni Association's graduation festival from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

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David Illinois wrote on May 09, 2013 at 7:05 am

Can you pay tuition with "virtual" money?

MissM wrote on May 09, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Great to see the U of I use technology and teamwork to make the most out of this situation! I could see this technology useful for other places, like when historic buildings are being restored or works of art are off display in a museum for cleaning.

choco640 wrote on May 09, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I love this idea, but it is sad that they assumed that everyone has an I-Phone or I-Pad.  It really should be available for all smart phones.  Once again, the Mac brainwashing has snuck itself into the world!

UIUCHoopFan wrote on May 09, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I've seen some of the pics posted on Facebook....they look terrible.  I feel so bad for the May grads missing the most popular photo opportunity on one of the biggest events in their young lives. 

A huge failure on the part of the company commissioned to perform the restoration.  You were contracted to complete a job in a specified amount of time.....FAILURE!

The technology is only applicable for those in possession of the necessary tools and applications to perform a lame at best PhotoShop picture of Alma.  UIUC assumes everyone bows to the Mac....such is not the case.