Weird science

Three-dimensional imaging can tell the story of these bones or re-create a dinosaur. A Nevada company is a leader in this cool technology.

Brian Wilcox, president of Point Data Marketing Inc., Richard McLaren and Amber Bocskor work to recreate the skull of 37-year-old Isaac Newton Mason who died in the Civil War.

Brian Wilcox, president of Point Data Marketing Inc., Richard McLaren and Amber Bocskor work to recreate the skull of 37-year-old Isaac Newton Mason who died in the Civil War.

Photo By David Robert

Isaac Newton Mason was old at 37, with skin like shoe leather stretched taut over his broad, Irish cheekbones. The graying whiskers on his chin spilled down his neck into a spray of beard that made him look every bit his age, perhaps older. That April morning, he felt each and every one of his years.

Mason had been fighting for nearly two years alongside his brother. He could not remember a time when he was not packing the worn-out knapsack on his shoulder, carrying the seedy canteen around his waist or toting the rifle in hand. He worried his brother might be hurt. Maybe wounded. Maybe worse.

Despite his age, Mason was not an officer, just an enlisted man. He was popular with his regiment and made a convincing war hero at 5 feet 10 inches and 170 pounds. Despite the weariness in his bones, his jaw was square, and he was handsome in a scraggly, worn kind of way.

On the morning of April 6, Mason was the first to break over a shallow ridge in Shiloh, Tenn. The year was 1862. The moment he stepped atop the ridge—the sun bright in his eyes and his churlish hair catching the light—a bullet caught him square in the chest, exploding flesh, tearing through his sternum and killing him dead.

Today, 142 years later, Brian Wilcox, president of Sparks-based Point Data Marketing Inc., or PDMI, is intently looking at a virtual model of Mason on a computer monitor. Wilcox’s team helped identify Mason’s remains. Wilcox himself became involved after builders in rural Tennessee discovered a cast-iron casket—one of the rarest caskets of the Civil War era—while they were excavating an old plantation.

No one knew the casket contained Mason. No one knew who was in the casket.

The Tennessee Department of Historical Studies wanted to learn more about the remains, so it contacted the natural history museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian uses PDMI for some of its most technical three-dimensional-imaging needs.

Doug Owsley, chairman of the Physical Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian, said the scanning, in conjunction with other scientific methods, allowed the scientists to identify the body.

“We scanned the Civil War skeleton remains, and our team, including anthropologists, costume experts and forensic pathologists, was able to ascertain the remains were those of Isaac Newton Mason,” he said.

Does this sound like a Jules Verne novel or a flight of fancy? The work so interested ABC’s 20/20 that it participated in the reconstruction and helped recreate Mason’s face for television broadcast. If not for the kind of 3-D digital engineering used by PDMI, the Civil War hero’s story might have ended all those years ago.

Blinded by science
CSI, as many people know, is the No. 1 show on television. Its popularity has created a booming interest in such things as “forensic science,” a term that comes to mind when people think of criminal cases involving a victim, such as rape or murder.

In fact, the PDMI team that assisted with Isaac Newton Mason can use the same technology to help police investigators identify murder victims who are so badly decomposed they can’t be identified—just as on CSI.

PDMI uses a process called stereolithography (STL), a 3-D printing process that makes a solid object from a digitally engineered file.

Doing such things as reconstructing digital dinosaurs based on real remains catapults people like Brian Wilcox and Richard McLaren at Point Data Marketing Inc. into the realm of rock stars in the paleontology world.

Photo By David Robert

Brace yourself: Here comes the science part.

Wilcox takes an artifact and scans it using a CT scanner (or a CAT—computed axial tomography— scanner). A CT scanner is one of those doughnut-looking machines at the hospital that takes thousands of X-rays from every angle and puts them in sequentially ordered slices. If the object being scanned were a living patient, doctors could use these images to determine if the patient had a brain tumor or a broken bone. If the patient had a stroke, doctors could detect pools of blood trapped in the patient’s brain.

PDMI can take the scans from the CT and reassemble them so the slices are no longer separate—almost like putting all the slices of a cake back together. PDMI’s software process then creates something called a “point data cloud,” or hundreds of thousands of pixels (little dots, really) that provide a 3-D digital image of the object.

PDMI takes these little dots and places a solid layer on top of them—kind of like putting a digital layer of plastic on leftovers. The software program’s layer can capture every nuance, crevice, bump or ripple in the point data cloud and create a virtual layer over the dots. Then the software allows for the layer to be manipulated.

From the STL files, a “rapid prototype,” or machine-made model, is crafted, and then a human reconstructor uses clay-like materials to mold muscle, tissues and other anatomical parts. PDMI’s findings helped artists reconstruct Isaac Newton Mason’s nose and rebuild missing sections of a tyrannosaurus rex’s skull.

Science and business
Wilcox’s 4-year-old company has, in just a few years, developed a client base that stretches around the globe and includes some of the world’s most prestigious scientific and industrial entities, such as the Smithsonian Institution, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Milwaukee Public Museum and National Geographic Television. Together with the company’s vice president, Arthur Andersen, Wilcox brings fascinating projects to Northern Nevada.

Consider these examples:

Andersen reconstructed the mummified remains of Padi-Haru, an Egyptian priest who died more than 2,000 years ago. PDMI did not merely recreate Padi-Haru, who died at about 20 years of age; it also determined that, in keeping with Egyptian burial rites, Padi-Haru’s brain was removed before he was mummified. The seven-person company accomplished this without touching the mummy—indeed, without ever seeing the mummy. Instead, it used CT scans taken by the Milwaukee Public Museum, digitized them and applied a process called reverse engineering to digitally unwrap Padi-Haru’s face and see what the man looked like—2,200 years after he died.

Then there was Stan, the world’s most perfect tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, which resides at the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, S.D. Wilcox CT-scanned Stan’s skull and then watched as his computer team generated a 3-D model of museum quality.

Andersen currently can be seen in the video display of the triceratops exhibit at the Smithsonian. He’s an expert in digital dinosaur reconstructions and was asked by the Smithsonian to assist in the triceratops conservation project. Reconstructing entire dinosaur families is amazing and vaults this team to the status of rock stars in the paleontology world.

It is not difficult to imagine scientists wanting to use Point Data Marketing’s 3-D digital engineering services. This is, after all, a newly emerging field and just a handful of companies possess both the software and engineering expertise necessary to operate it. But it may be more difficult to imagine commercial applications.

Don’t worry, they’re out there. For example, when the Nevada State Museum’s historical-preservation officer, Ron James, saw an opportunity to make a little money for the museum, he ended up in Wilcox and Andersen’s hands.

“I was reviewing an exhibit containing materials from Nevada’s early Silver Rush days and came across a cribbage board designed in the 1800s,” James said. “I picked up the game and realized we had a product that would appeal to Western collectors and Old Nevada aficionados. People started asking if they could buy a model of the cribbage board to take home. We realized immediately it would be a great way to take away a piece of Nevada history and raise funds for the museum.”

James was referred to PDMI.

Point Data Marketing Inc. in Sparks reconstructed the mummified remains of the Egyptian priest Padi-Haru who died more than 2,000 years ago.

Courtesy Of Point Data Marketing INC

“This is what we really do best,” Wilcox said. “Combine the technological advances of science and apply them to business. And that is truly exciting because the applications are endless.”

PDMI plans to scan not just the 1863 cribbage board but also two other projects for the Nevada State Museum, an early water filter and the world’s oldest Tabasco bottle, which was found in Virginia City.

Antiques Roadshow, which is bringing its popular series to Reno to tape a segment in August, has expressed an interest in Nevada’s “oldest Tabasco bottle,” which predates other versions found in Louisiana by nearly a decade. It must really frost all those New Orleans folks who, until this discovery, thought the oldest Tabasco bottle resided in their state.

“This Tabasco bottle was made in about 1869, before any others that are presently known, and has become famous,” James said. “It has appeared on CNN, and we’ve had inquiries about it from as far away as England and Germany. The great thing about using PDMI is they can digitally repair broken edges, remove chips and produce a pristine replica of any of our artifacts, allowing us to have several exhibits throughout the state and, of course, create a perfect prototype of the cribbage board. We’re excited at all the possibilities.”

Age of wonder
One hundred years ago, if you had conjectured the things this technology can do, people would have thought you were telling stories like those found in Jules Verne’s 19th-century novels. Today’s technological innovations make it clear there is plenty of room for wonder left in the world.

Some of that wonder begins in Wilcox’s office. It’s a utilitarian place, as you would expect the office of a meticulous scientist and mathematician to be. Wilcox wears khaki shorts and a tan shirt with a stonewashed tropical print of palm leaves. His hair is neat and trim, underscoring his science-guy persona, but more than that his eyes are bright and animated.

His desk has a green blotter at its center, a computer to one side and a brass desk lamp, the kind with the green glass shade. Next to the lamp is Padi-Haru’s head. Scattered about are pictures of Isaac Newton Mason, the Civil War soldier reconstructed for the 20/20 television show. In the center of this fascinating world where technology, archaeology and adventure come together is a series of expertly photographed toilets.

They, too, have a place in the story of 3-D digital engineering technology.

“You see,” Wilcox began, “the potential for this technology is really endless. We were contacted by a corporation who subcontracts manufacturing to suppliers in several countries. “The problem was that one of the devices leaked, and this manufacturer did not know why.”

Wilcox continues without missing a beat. “Once a part is made it can be 3-D-scanned, registered to its original CAD file and interrogated showing where the part is in and out of tolerance. So instead of measuring a few hundred or a few thousand points, hundreds of thousands of points can be acquired and compared to its CAD file, resulting in a much more accurate part inspection.”

He sits back in his burgundy leather chair, satisfied at his explanation, not realizing the Average Joe would have no clue as to what he was talking about.

What Wilcox means is that this technology also can be used for industrial purposes. For example, when a product or device—such as a toilet—is designed, specifications are provided to the manufacturers. These specifications ensure each part is made to consistent standards of height, width and so on. Using traditional methods, engineers must measure by hand to determine if the toilet parts were made to the correct specifications. Not a big deal. Except, in this case, some of the devices leaked, which was a big deal.

Manufacturers often spend considerable time and alarming expense to figure out what causes their products to malfunction. These companies have innumerable possible solutions: They can test, retrofit the manufacturing process, change vendors, re-make molds, generate change orders—and still they are often unsure they are correcting the actual problem.

Three-dimensional imaging provides a diagnostic tool that can save companies hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars.

Wilcox recounts the story of a manufacturer that was convinced its product molds were not built to specification. The business believed the most viable solution was to create expensive new molds. Luckily, before that decision was implemented, PDMI scanned the device and discovered the molds were not the problem at all—it was the assembly process. The solution consisted of adding a few shims to a conveyor.

“This technology is not limited to museums and archaeological digs,” said Wilcox. “This technology can use 3-D digital engineering to determine the fat content in meat for automated butchering plants. We can enhance the quality inspection process in manufacturing or assembly and determine precisely if a product meets or fails to meet design specifications. We can even determine if final assembly is being done correctly.

“Most amazing," Wilcox continued, "is that when you think of Nevada you don’t necessarily think this kind of technology would be here—but it is here, and the world wants to know more. They want to experience it. They want to harness the incredible potential it offers. And, I want them to know PDMI is ready."