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Picturing the Past

HP Labs Technology Helping Scholars Decipher Ancient Texts

6 December 2000

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Yale scholar Walter Bodine had spent the better part of four long years painstakingly transcribing the ancient Sumerian characters inscribed on a crumbling, 4,000-year-old clay tablet.

Then he met Tom Malzbender, an HP Labs researcher who has invented a tool that lets scholars see ancient texts in ways never before possible.

Malzbender's technology for capturing and viewing images of three-dimensional objects can make characters that were previously invisible or undecipherable clear enough to read. As a result, scholars can derive more accurate meanings from the text - and potentially obtain a better understanding of the past.

"I've been working on these texts for years, trying to figure out what the lines say," says Bodine, a research affiliate with the Babylonian Collection at Yale, the nation's premier collection of ancient cuneiform tablets.  "This technology gives me access to more data than I get when using my own eyes."

In one case, researchers were even able to make out the fingerprint of the author of a document, imprinted ever so faintly into the clay thousands of years ago.

"You quite literally have the human touch of 3,000 or 4,000 years ago," says Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California. "Potentially, this (technology) could mean a profound improvement in our knowledge of the ancient world."

Traditionally, scholars of ancient texts have scrutinized the physical tablets, stones or other materials to decipher and transcribe inscriptions. Trouble is, the tablets are thousands of years old - they're worn and often crumbling, and the writing is faded.

You quite literally have the human touch of 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, says Bruce Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California. Potentially, this technology could mean a profound improvement in our knowledge of the ancient world

By changing the angle or type of light shining on the tablets, scholars can sometimes see the text more clearly. In the early 1980s, Zuckerman, a scholar and teacher of the Bible and ancient Semitic languages at USC, pioneered the use of high-resolution photographs in the study of ancient writing.

Malzbender's invention, a type of image-based relighting, takes that technique several steps further by automating the collection of images and allowing scholars to manipulate the lighting and other aspects of the image on the screen. By changing the appearance of the object, the technology brings out surface details previously invisible to the naked eye.

Malzbender and his collegues in HP Labs' visual computing department, Dan Gelb and Hans Wolters, didn't set out to change the study of ancient texts. He was trying to solve problems of existing 3D graphics rendering technologies, looking for a way to both improve photorealism and rendering efficiency.

To collect data, Malzbender headed to his basement and built a geodesic dome - constructed of glued-together wooden dowels - that would help him control the angle of light. In a darkened room, he photographed a crumpled-up newspaper 40 times, each time changing the angle of the light, a table lamp.

It worked. On the screen, he could manipulate the angle of light to change and enhance the surface appearance of the newspaper.

To speed the data-collection process, Malzbender teamed with fellow researchers Gelb, Eric Montgomery and Bill Ambrisco to build an automated dome. This one, a plastic dome with 50 flashbulbs mounted on its inside surface, takes 50 photos at the touch of a button.

Malzbender next wondered if there were other ways to accentuate surface details. He wound up developing an entirely new class of constrast-enhancement mechanisms that can bring out even surface details.


By changing the optical properties of the imaged object, he can synthesize specular highlights - that is, he can make a surface that isn't reflective, such as a clay tablet, appear to be as glossy as obsidian. Another technique, called diffuse gain, changes how the surface responds to light. A third method, model extrapolation, makes the lighting appear more oblique than is physically possible.

Malzbender and other researchers are now working on a freestanding portable unit that scholars could easily transport to remote sites to capture images of  large objects such as walls or statues.

The image-based relighting technology has the potential to reshape other fields as well, including forensics and diagnostic medicine, where materials are degraded or difficult to view.

"It's been really exciting," says Malzbender. "A lot of things have come out of this we didn't expect."

by Jamie Beckett


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