These Two SoCal Universities Are Working to Digitize and 3D Print Mesoamerican Artifacts

Ivan Fernandez
Ivan Fernandez (a.k.a. Afroxander) is a L.A.-based freelancer whose work has appeared in GRAMMYs, FLAUNT, KCET (Artbound, Lost L.A. & Southland Sessions), L.A. Taco, LA Weekly, Coachella CAMP magazine, Remezcla, Gamecrate, Panamerika, MTV Iggy, among other publications.
These Two SoCal Universities Are Working to Digitize and 3D Print Mesoamerican Artifacts
Credit: Cal State LA Special Collections & Archives/MAW Collection

William Cunningham's voice is calm and patient over the phone. That sense of serenity will serve him well in the coming years as he helms the effort to digitize tens of thousands of artifacts, books and photographs, some nearly 3,000 years old, from USC's collections of Mesoamerica as well as those at California State University Los Angeles.

Cunningham, a digital imaging specialist at the University of Southern California Libraries Digital Library, will be responsible manning the camera and rig to capture a sprawling collection of artifacts and rare books such as recreations of Aztec codices copied directly from the original sources and a 16th-century edition of the "Cronica Mexicana" by Hernando de Alvarado Tezozómoc, a writer and direct descendant of Aztec emperors.


Cunningham's work is integral to the Cal State-USC joint project funded by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The project could have implications for generations of academics, students, and indigenous peoples in North and Central America trying to understand the connection between the thousands of years of pre-Columbian history and colonialism in the Americas.

"It's going to be a useful pedagogical tool, and, obviously, quite a resource outside of Cal State as well to the broader community," said Mario H. Ramirez, head of special collections and archives at the University Library at CSULA. Ramirez is also a principal investigator in the project's joint-team that includes Cunningham, Azalea Camacho (also a principal investigator) along with several other researchers.

Image: Standing Male Figure of Ballplayer; Mexico, Guanajuato, Chupícuaro; late pre-classic 200 BC-1 BC. Credit: Cal State LA Special Collections & Archives/MAW Collection

"Our intent with it is to work with local K through 12 districts and work with community groups in order to really make clear the connection between the materials and history they document and a lot of the Latin American communities that reside here in Los Angeles as well," said Ramirez.

The items from CSULA's Mesoamerican and Colonial Mexico Rare Book Collection and MAW Collection and the USC Libraries' Special Collections include stone and clay figures from more than a dozen cultures that thrived before the Spanish conquest. Among the pieces are an effigy figure of the rain god Tlaloc from Teotihuacan culture in the heart of Mexico that retains much of its original earthen pigments.

There thousands of photos taken during the early 20th century of historic pre-Colombian sites and Spanish colonial architecture across Mexico and Central America before excavations, tourism and the hundreds of thousands of seekers it attracts faded much of the glory of those areas.

The digitized archives will eventually be shared freely via the Cal State digital library, the USC digital library, Calisphere and the Digital Public Library of America. The intent is to bring these collections to life for students and to those who might otherwise not get the chance to see them.

"We're hoping to do some 3D printing on campus of some of the objects," said Ramirez. "It's supposed to be a teaching collection in many ways but, obviously, many of the artifacts are very delicate so we don't want people accidentally dropping them. We're hoping to 3D print some of them so that it's feasible and students can actually handle some of them because we have a Mesoamerican Studies minor on our campus."

The photography collection also includes nearly 10,000 images printed on 35mm slides. The images are dated from the 1950s to the 1980s and feature Mesoamerican objects held in museums in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the US, and South America. Of these, Cunningham has digitized 4,500 of them.

Cunningham uses a different camera and process to digitize physical objects such as statues and jars. He uses a Phase One XF camera with a 100-megapixel Phase One IQ3 digital back. Normally, he shoots 32 images of each item from one of three angles for a total of 96 images to create a single 3D render of an object. The 3D render is processed using Agisoft Metashape.

However, the massive number of items he needs to scan within the three-year period has forced him to experiment with other methods. He's currently testing out a method to create 3D renders with only 16 photos using either one or two camera angles depending on the shape and size of the artifact.

One of Cunningham's biggest challenges is handling the items. Many are centuries old and are very brittle or fragile. Some of the rare books that he's digitized so far, for example, have to be handled with care or the pages may break apart at the edges. Some have pages missing or have contents that have faded due to the elements. Despite this, he's found some amazing pieces of history sitting in the archives.

"There were about 10 different books," said Cunningham. "Some of them were late 19th century, early 20th century and some of them were reproductions of Aztec codices, which were written and illustrated at the time of the Spanish conquest. Those were kind of fascinating just to see if this was someone sitting there drawing pictures of Aztec rituals and ethnic daily life, and also images of the Spanish and their boats and their cannons and swords and armor coming ashore. These were done by people who were bearing witness."

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

Cadence

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

Read moreShow less

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

Read moreShow less

Is AI Making the Creative Class Obsolete?

Steve Huff
Steve Huff is an Editor and Reporter at dot.LA. Steve was previously managing editor for The Metaverse Post and before that deputy digital editor for Maxim magazine. He has written for Inside Hook, Observer and New York Mag. Steve is the author of two official tie-ins books for AMC’s hit “Breaking Bad” prequel, “Better Call Saul.” He’s also a classically-trained tenor and has performed with opera companies and orchestras all over the Eastern U.S. He lives in the greater Boston metro area with his wife, educator Dr. Dana Huff.
​AI face surrounded by art
image courtesy of Andria Moore

As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, AI image and writing generators are becoming more widespread, even taking on creative tasks some once thought uniquely human.

These tools have limitations. AI-created images sometimes appear half-finished (look no further than DALL-E’s early renderings of faces), and AI-generated writing can sound like garble written by, well, a robot.

The surge in AI use for creative work like copywriting and developing art has some in the creative fields concerned about losing their jobs, going the way of the traditional animator at Pixar. Reports like one published in 2021 by San Mateo-based job discovery platform Zippia don’t help with statements like, “AI could take the jobs of as many as one billion people globally and make 375 million jobs obsolete over the next decade” and “half of all companies currently utilize AI in some fashion.”

Using AI to create open-source art available to the masses wasn’t on the radar for many until the release of the text-to-image creator DALL-E Mini last summer. The release coincided with the Washington Post’s profile of Google engineer Blake Lemoine, who claimed Google’s Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LAMDA) was sentient.

AI innovations like GPT-3—a large language model which uses deep learning to produce original text—are touted as solutions to a host of problems with little discussion about drawbacks or limitations. One notable example is the widely-used writing assistant Grammarly, which uses a combination of artificial intelligence techniques, including deep learning and natural language processing.

Hour One’s Natalie Monbiot says creatives shouldn’t be concerned about AI.

“It's normal to feel anxious about it, and it will be a realistic concern for those whose actual work can be done more cheaply, quickly, and consistently via machines,” says Monbiot, who is head of strategy for the avatar video generation platform.

“These new technologies are new tools,” she says, like “the pen, the typewriter, computers, and so on.”

Monbiot says that as AI becomes more instrumental to creators’ work, “there will be a higher premium on creativity (which is distinctly human) and less on execution.”

Kris Ruby of Ruby Media Group, a PR agency, tells dot.LA that users go wrong with AI writing products by trusting them to produce finished work. That “is not how the tools are supposed to be used,” Ruby says.

According to Ruby, users of text-to-image generation tools like DALL-E Mini and Midjourney make the mistake of “calculating the cost of the software subscription…but not the number of hours it takes to get even one useable image.”

Austin-based Jasper.ai’s CEO Dave Rogenmoser says these applications “eliminate the mundane elements of the content creation process.” Jasper develops multiple AI-powered writing tools and recently added a text-to-image creator to its suite.

“It isn’t a replacement for creators or the creative process,” he says, “rather, it’s a trusty sidekick in the content process that helps bring ideas to life faster and in a more efficient way.”

San Francisco-based Writer.com is an AI writing assistant focused on corporate clients. Its CEO, May Habib, tells dot.LA that creators have more to gain from the tools than they have to lose.

“Like any tool, it is about depth: AI writing tools are most powerful in the hands of those who are already pretty skilled, but still pretty useful for everyone,” Habib says.

“We don’t think AI is going to take away real writing jobs,” she continues, “but it will speed up ideation and drafting.”

Is there a danger of overselling AI before it can meet companies’ expectations?

Habib’s answer? Absolutely. Consumers should not expect artificial intelligence to solve all their problems. Applications powered by AI “can’t feel like magic,” she says; they have to “feel like technology."

AI expert Mikaela Pisani is the Chief Data Scientist for Los Angeles-based Rootstrap, which develops apps for startups. Asked if it was realistic for creators to worry about losing jobs to artificial intelligence, Pisani says, “AI is becoming increasingly creative” and “can help creatives generate content ideas at scale.”

When it comes to fears that AI might replace creators, Pisani notes that “Creativity is defined as 'the ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas.’”

“To think outside of the box is implicitly hard to do for machines,” Pisani says, “since AI are trained on available information. Therefore, our creative brain won't be replaced by AI in the near future, since it is too challenging for machines to recreate innovation. By extension, AI does not create a final piece of art, but it can be used as a co-creator.”

Pisani’s perspective isn’t that different from execs behind AI-fueled startups. She says that because artificial intelligence can “multitask rapidly, it could also be a source of inspiration for artists.”

“Writers, musicians, designers, or artists,” Pisani continues, “shouldn't be afraid of being replaced but should make themselves aware of these AI tools that can help their creativity reach a new level of scale."

So far, the consensus seems to be that AI is just an instrument, not a replacement for human artistry.

It’s still early, though, and artificial intelligence use is evolving fast. Just last week, Vanity Fair reported that 91-year-old James Earl Jones is retiring from voicing Darth Vader for future Star Wars shows and movies. His replacement? Respeecher, AKA “voice cloning powered by artificial intelligence.” The Ukraine-based company says its product “leverages recent revolutionary advances in artificial intelligence” to create “voice swaps [that] are virtually indistinguishable from the original — and never sound robotic.”

One thing seems clear: AI is here to stay.

RELATEDEDITOR'S PICKS
LA TECH JOBS
interchangeLA
Trending