3D Scanning – Applying Science to Ghost Hunting

Sandra L. Pouncy

3D laser scanners are well known for their use in the engineering and manufacturing industries, but the entertainment industry? Not so much. After its introduction in 1998, companies whose tasks could obviously be simplified by laser scanners, such as product design and manufacturing, immediately implemented laser scanning. Yet, in the last 12 years, laser scanning has reached an increasingly broad range of industries and organizations that can also benefit from the ability of 3D scanning to gather the precise physical data of objects, spaces and environments-a recent example of which can be seen in the National Geographic Channel’s use of laser scanning to survey the interior of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary-reputed to be one of the most haunted prisons in America-for a television special on the eerie facility.

According to National Geographic, since the prison’s official closing in 1971, caretakers and tour visitors of the prison have heard “eerie voices, weeping and tormented screams, while others have seen shadows dart in and out of cells.” Previously featured on various programs about America’s most haunted places, the penitentiary was well known for its hair-raising tails before the National Geographic Channel took its turn. But the prison had never been thoroughly examined using the tools of hard science in addition to the suggestive tools commonly used by parapsychologists and psychic investigators, such as EVP recorders and video. As a result, viewers were able to travel inside the prison by virtue of 3D animations produced from triangulation scanning and see exactly where ominous noises and odd sightings supposedly occur, as revealed by motion sensors, night vision and infrared cameras.

The primary scanning subject of the penitentiary was its 12th cellblock, in which more ghostly phenomena is said to occur than in other cellblocks. For National Geographic’s scientists, the challenge was to determine whether the cellblock actually exhibited inexplicable happenings or such happenings were the result of those who believed in ghosts and therefore inadvertently perceived the phenomena due to the prison’s ghostly reputation. To get an answer, researchers decided to use laser scanning in combination with the technology mentioned above to pinpoint any happenings in cell block 12. Concerning the 3D scanning, triangulation scanners were chosen for their ability to scan relatively large spaces with incredible accuracy.

In the end, as with other famous hauntings, Eastern State Penitentiary’s ghostly happenings couldn’t be scientifically legitimated or explained away. But the presence of laser scanning, among other technologies, gave viewers a greater level of insight toward drawing their own conclusions. In addition to being used for documentary specials, laser scanning is also commonly used by the entertainment industry to create video game characters whose movements are based on real human movements.

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