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App brings missing campus icon home for commencement, virtually

feature image
Photo by
Travis Ross

A high-resolution 3-D model of the Alma Mater sculpture, unveiling its new bronze finish, was created from a detailed surface scan of the physical sculpture. An iOS app displays the model on the pedestal so that graduates can experience the tradition of taking a photo with the Alma Mater.

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5/8/2013 | Liz Ahlberg, Physical Sciences Editor | 217-244-1073;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Commencement is a time rich in both tradition and anticipation for the future. Although a vital icon of tradition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Alma Mater sculpture, is absent in body, she is present in spirit – and in pixel.

The augmented reality Alma Mater mobile app offered students many now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t moments. Here, history and communication graduate Madeline Ley poses in front of the pedestal with a poster of Alma, which triggered the mobile app to insert a 3-D image of the Alma Mater sculpture.
The augmented reality Alma Mater mobile app offered students many now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t moments. Here, history and communication graduate Madeline Ley poses in front of the pedestal with a poster of Alma, which triggered the mobile app to insert a 3-D image of the Alma Mater sculpture. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Graduates will be able to have a photo taken with a photo-realistic, high-resolution digital Alma Mater thanks to a free augmented reality application for iOS devices that displays the iconic and much-adored sculpture on its pedestal, life-sized and in real time.

The bronze Alma Mater sculpture is one of the most recognizable and beloved symbols of the campus. At 13 feet tall, Alma herself stands with arms outstretched as the figures of Learning and Labor clasp hands behind her. It has been a campus icon since its dedication in 1929. Students have lined up to take a picture with the sculpture in their caps and gowns for decades as an intrinsic rite of graduation.

The sculpture was removed from its pedestal on Aug. 7, 2012, for conservation work after decades of deterioration as a result of exposure to the elements. Many members of the Illinois community, especially students, were disappointed that she would not be present to preside over commencement.

“The sculpture is so important to us because Alma represents the mother of our Illinois family,” said Joel Steinfeldt, the brand manager for the Urbana-Champaign campus. “This project allows students to still have the traditional experience, but with a technological twist that will forever be unique to the Class of 2013. It also helps to advance awareness of campus augmented reality and imaging research that seeks to improve the ability of educators to spread knowledge.”

Artists and programmers across campus came together to create the app, made possible by the three-dimensional scanning and modeling capabilities at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, computing power at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), research at the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science (I-CHASS), and community collaboration with the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab.

The app uses NCSA’s augmented reality technology to digitally impose the Alma Mater model within the real-world scene. A poster depicting the Alma Mater’s face sits on the sculpture’s pedestal near the Illini Union. The app recognizes the poster and responds by displaying the high-resolution, three-dimensional model, using specific reference points in the image to determine the location and perspective of the computer-generated sculpture. A graduate can walk up next to the platform and appear to be standing next to the sculpture.

“It’s magic,” said computer scientist Bob McGrath, who retired from NCSA in 2012 and came back to work on the Alma Mater AR app. “These graphics are exactly what you see in video games or in movies, except that we’re projecting it onto the scene from the real world. So what you see is this computer graphics generated object imposed on the world in the place that it’s supposed to be.”

Aside from her magical appearing act, the augmented reality Alma Mater will surprise students with her new made-over look. The familiar color of blue-green streaked with black was a result of oxidation and corrosion. The conservation efforts are returning the sculpture to its original bronze finish. The artists working on the app strove to re-create the restored finish as closely as possible.

“This is the unveiling of the new look of the Alma,” said Alan B. Craig, the head of the augmented reality unit at NCSA and I-CHASS. “I think people will be surprised not only to see the Alma Mater in augmented reality, but also to see the Alma Mater looking different than they’re used to seeing her. Instead of the blue-green that we’re all accustomed to, it’s the bronze color that the Alma Mater will look like when it comes back.”

This is the first time an augmented reality object of this type has been rendered at such a large scale in an outdoor setting. The effort to bring the Alma Mater home for commencement demonstrated a strength at the core of the U. of I. identity: collaboration across multiple areas of expertise to create something technically advanced and meaningful to the community. The project involved researchers, ironworkers, graphic designers, communicators, students, imaging specialists, conservators, administrators and others working together under a tight deadline.

Building the model began with a high-resolution surface scan of the sculpture at the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park, Ill., to create a digital duplicate in painstaking detail. Travis Ross, the manager of the Visualization Laboratory at Beckman, then faced the challenge of taking the 2 billion points of data from the scan and creating a simplified model that could be processed by a mobile device in real time, while retaining the high-resolution detail in its appearance. Meanwhile, Craig and McGrath worked to build the application, collaborating with graphic designers in campus Public Affairs and metalworkers in Facilities and Services to create the target that the app would recognize.

“This demonstrated the University of Illinois’ technical prowess in ways we have always illustrated it: We built it,” said McGrath, who volunteers with the Fab Lab and brought its resources to the project. “It’s a place good ideas come from. It’s also a place where we can pull together experience of many different kinds. Only at a place like Illinois where we have that kind of expertise and people who want to work together can you do things like that.”

The Alma Mater AR app is only one demonstration of augmented reality as a new medium for interacting with digital data in the real world and the potential it holds for research, education and the arts. NCSA, I-CHASS and the Beckman Institute are already working on further projects using augmented reality and 3-D scanning for virtual archaeology digs, digitally recording museum artifacts and creating interactive virtual counterparts, engineering applications, and interactive magazines and textbooks.

“I see tremendous potential for these ideas of augmented reality,” Craig said. “From chemistry, looking at 3-D molecules; to weather systems, visualizing what’s happening at your location in real time; to training exercises, I think the potential is very strong. When people hear about what we’re doing here – making textbooks come alive with digital data, and interacting in different ways in the classroom, as well as large-scale augmented reality experiences like the Alma Mater or a life-sized woolly mammoth – they’ll have a better idea of what we’re talking about when we mention mixing computer graphics with the real world.”

As a personal, interactive medium, augmented reality not only creates new opportunities to interact with the physical and digital worlds, but also to enhance community connections and shared experiences, as it is doing for the Class of 2013.

“The Alma Mater AR app is letting us have a community experience together, so that the students who want to have this experience together with Alma can do it,” McGrath said. “We’re using digital technology to add something really special and fun that helps bring people together in a way they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

The Alma Mater AR app is freely downloadable from the Apple Store. The app requires the on-site target to function. The target will be atop the pedestal at the corner of Green and Wright streets in Urbana from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, May 9, through Saturday, May 11.

“It’s going to be exciting for the students and their parents,” Ross said. “It’s so important to be able to make this happen for this graduating class. I think the students are going to be excited when they have the opportunity to have their picture taken in a new way that no one else has ever been able to do.”

Editor's note: To contact Alan Craig, call 217-244-1988; email To contact Travis Ross, call 217-244-9033; email
For more information, go to
Updated Alma Mater restoration videos and still images are available.

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