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IU Southeast fine arts professor Brian Harper brings people from around the world together -- in 3-D plastic

Mar. 20, 2013

View a video of Brian Harper describing The Open Crowd Project.

Brian Harper is never alone in his office.

One may not notice his guests at first, since they are sometimes lost in the sea of a busy artist’s studio filled with ceramics, clay tubes, and camera equipment.

Oh, and these guests are no more than 3 inches tall.

Brian Harper

Brian Harper is the man behind The Open Crowd Project, a collection of 3-inch plastic 3-D prints of real people.

Harper, assistant professor of fine arts, is the man behind the curtain of The Open Crowd Project, a collection of 3-inch plastic 3-D prints of real people from IU Southeast and across the country.

His goal is to bring a massive crowd of people, from all different locations and walks of life, together in one place. Not physically, of course, but instead they are represented by their personalized replicas in the small plastic models.

“It’s very much a collaborative project -- with strangers,” he said. “It’s a way of sharing through an object.”

Bringing information to life
When Harper walks through campus, he’ll occasionally see someone he thinks might make a good model for the project.

“Some people have a really characteristic look,” he said. “Something that describes them.”

Sometimes it’s the clothes they chose to wear, other times it’s a distinctive feature. Still, Harper knows that each person is unique, and he is drawn to how those differences are displayed in the visual “information” of a person.

In fact, the idea behind The Open Crowd Project began with Harper’s interest in the ways in which human beings have shared information throughout history. He read the book “The Information” by James Gleick, which details the history of how human beings share and transfer information through writing, engineering, biology, technology and various other mediums. Harper became fascinated with the idea that a three-dimensional form could be shared via the Internet in much the same way that we can share digital images and text.

Basically, he could create a complete 3-D replica of an individual from only a series of photographs, capturing that person’s unique likeness in plastic.

“I liked the idea that this way of encoding and transferring information could manifest into an object,” he said.

And gathered together, he realized he could connect a diverse crowd of real people and expand his project to the world.

“It’s the opportunity to stand next to somebody you’ve never stood next to before,” he said.

plastic man

Anyone is welcome to submit photographs to become a face in the crowd.

Harper began scanning people for prints in 2012. By the end of 2013, he’s hoping to have about 350 prints in the crowd. He has about 50 models so far, and he displayed his progress in the Barr Gallery on campus during the fall 2012 semester.

IU Southeast visitors to the gallery will find a few familiar faces mixed in with the crowd as Harper’s earliest models were some of his students and fellow faculty members.   

But also sprinkled in are people from across the country and the world who have submitted their photographs to Harper through his website, www.theopencrowdproject.com.

“I’d like there to be geographic diversity,” Harper said. “It still needs to gain a little more traction. Most of the people who are featured are from the region but there are some from Canada, Washington, New York, Mississippi and Virginia.”

Anyone is welcome to submit photographs to become a face in the crowd. The beauty of such a project is its ability to be interactive. All one has to do is visit the website and submit photographs according to Harper’s instruction.

Eventually, Harper wants to make the process a little more user-friendly. There’s even a smartphone app that gives users the ability to scan any 3-D object to create a 3-D image. The app’s head developer has been in contact with Harper about The Open Crowd Project.

The technology even allows instances where a person could enter something similar to a photo booth, take a few scans and have a 3-D model printed out.

Making mini models
Until then, creating each 3-D print takes Harper about six hours from photographs to finished product.
The pictures are a little more complicated than just point and shoot. In order to digitally stitch the images together to form a 3-D model from the waist up, Harper needs multiple photographs from different angles. He also needs markers to match up the images when he digitally ties them together, so pieces of masking tape are placed at strategic parts of the body so that images correspond.

After the 45 to 50 photographs are scanned, Harper uses computer software to manually join them together and create a virtual image. The digital stitching takes about two hours.

Next Harper spends about an hour refining and cleaning the scans to make each individual detail stick out. He fixes flyaway hairs and makes sure shirt collars don’t blend into necks. He defines the folds of a scarf and cleans up a mustache. When he is satisfied with the image, he sends it to a 3-D printer a little bit larger than a toaster oven that sits in his studio.

For the next three hours, the printer spins filament into hundreds of miniscule layers that stack on top of each other to create the 3-D print. 

Then voila: a person emerges.

“Most everyone has said it looks just like them,” Harper said.

Moving beyond art
Harper has received support for this research through a Summer Faculty Fellowship for Research, a Grant-in-aid for Research, as well as an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission. He hopes to continue to apply for funding to be able to incorporate this line of research into the curriculum in the IU Southeast Fine Arts Program.

In fact, one of the most exciting aspects of this project is the potential it holds for student learning, Harper said.

“It would be nice to incorporate this technique into the curriculum,” he said. “The teaching ramifications are very exciting.”

Brian Harper

Creating each 3-D print takes Harper about six hours from photographs to finished product.

The 3-D printing technology Harper is using for Open Crowd has major objectives outside of art. Right now, it is most often found in science and engineering.

“There are people who are developing large-scale 3-D printers that can print a house with concrete,” he said. “And scientists are using it to print blood capillaries.”

With all the possibilities, Harper believes using 3-D printing technology at IU Southeast will allow for collaboration across subjects including art, math, informatics, and engineering. It provides a unique opportunity for cross-disciplinary study.

IU Southeast professor of mathematics Chris Lang “certainly, without any question” believes the technology has a place in various subjects. In fact, he has spoken with Harper about the ability to use 3-D printing in calculus courses.

“The 3-D printers open up the possibility of creating 3-D models that might help students understand how to apply calculus to discover the volume of an object, for example,” Lang said. 

When a student in an upper-level calculus class is tasked with finding the volume of an object, textbooks only provide a two-dimensional rendering. A 3-D model would provide students with a tactile representation of the object and could help learners who respond more to visual rather than analytical learning.

While Lang is primarily interested in using the technology in his math courses, he also has great respect for Harper’s use of the technique in The Open Crowd Project.

“It’s a really great idea and it has been executed beautifully,” Lang said. “You look at these models and you can truly recognize the people. It really is impressive.”

From an artist’s perspective, The Open Crowd Project is a new way to and connect people, Harper said. It reinforces a sense of togetherness between people who may otherwise be strangers and adds a new layer to how the world communicates. 

“Part of the responsibility of an artist is to help interpret the world around us,” he said.

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