Digitally Preserving the California Missions

San Francisco - Mission District: El Camino Re...
San Francisco – Mission District: El Camino Real Mission Bell and Mission Dolores Basilica (Photo credit: wallyg)

“Lasers used to scan California missions to preserve them forever”
Chris Palmer

San Jose Mercury News
February 8, 2013

One of the enticing possibilities offered by the ready availability of massive computing power is the potential to preserve detailed, accurate renderings of people, places and things online. Two of my favorite movies from my youth, Tron and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, began exploring that theme, offering parallel visions of how the “real” could be digitized, and vice-versa. Today I prefer the detailed simalcrum of the OASIS in Ernest Cline‘s dystopian cyberpunk future of Ready Player One, where places are captured in loving detail without being destroyed in the process. We get to have our place and live there, too.

Among others, California is blessed with nearly two dozen historical treasures over which the threat of destruction hovers daily: the Missions of El Camino Reál that were built by Franciscan monks between 1769 and 1823. Whatever your feelings about the Spanish colonization of Alta California and the efforts of the Catholic Church to convert the natives of the region, you must acknowledge that these settlements are the foundation that brought forth the modern state of California. There are of inestimable historic value, yet, made mostly of masonry and each built worryingly near active faults, these iconic sites exist on borrowed time.

Enter Oakland non-profit CyArk, which has set about preserving highly detailed renderings based on laser scans and photographs that become, essentially, blueprints for reconstruction, when and if such reconstruction becomes necessary. Four missions are done, 17 remain, and my understanding is that the process gets better with each site they scan.

At some point, though, it would be fascinating to have these renderings provided to the public, to become the centerpiece of virtual tours. Having tromped through six of them myself, I am always struck by how little time I have to focus on the detail, and how, at age 48, I still have 15 I’ve not seen. Earthquakes aside, our state should recognize that we have places that deserved to be savored online with greater depth than what is available on Google Earth and Wikipedia. And of all of the states in the union, ours should take the lead in bringing our historic and iconic buildings online.

In the meantime, though, kudos to the fine people at CyArk who have already figured out that our technology offers us a priceless opportunity to capture, preserve, and share our past, as well as our present and future.

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