Touring Mount Rushmore's famous faces goes virtual

By KRISTI EATON | January 10, 2012 | 4:20 PM EST

In this May, 2010 photo provided by the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, crews use lasers to scan Mount Rushmore monument, in western South Dakota. Crews scanned the monument and other features of the memorial to document and preserve the structure as well as create an online portal allowing users to visit the park virtually. (AP Photo/Mount Rushmore National Memorial)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Virtual visitors to Mount Rushmore can now explore even more remote areas of the memorial than some who see it in person.

Three-dimensional laser technology scans that captured every nook of the four presidential faces and other features of the monument last year mean that starting Tuesday, visitors will be able to take in-depth tours online of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in western South Dakota.

The portal, comprised of models of the monument, allows people remote access to the site to plan a visit or explore unusual areas, said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the memorial's director of interpretation and education. The monument draws about 3 million in-person visitors a year.

Online users are able to manipulate or dissect the three-dimensional models in various ways to learn more about the 60-foot granite carvings of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, McGee-Ballinger said.

Crews scanned the entire monument and other features of the park in 2010 for historic documentation and preservation.

"They physically scanned all the different aspects of the sculpture," McGee-Ballinger said. "This is going to really enhance our preservation aspect."

The project is a five-year collaboration between the National Park Service and CyArk, a nonprofit project of the Kacyra Family Foundation based in Orinda, Calif. The Scottish government also provided resources and technology to perform the 3-D laser documentation, McGee-Ballinger said.

Some of the sights and experiences that virtual visitors to the memorial will be able to take in that they couldn't in person are climbing to the top of the structure or accessing the Hall of Records behind the presidents' heads, said Elizabeth Lee, director of operations at CyArk.

Younger people are so accustomed to three-dimensional content because of video games that "being able to communicate about a historical site or the reservation work, you need something that is going to interest them or entice them," Lee said.

"Just on the educational front, having 3-D media is a great way to engage the next generation," she said.

The Kacyra Family Foundation, formed to foster humanitarian, cultural and scientific endeavors, has documented about 50 historical sites using state-of-the-art technology, including Pompeii in Italy and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It says it is committed to preserving world heritage and freely disseminating the data.

The Mount Rushmore data will also be available to researchers and teachers who want to incorporate it into their lesson plans, McGee-Ballinger said.

___

Online: http://archive.cyark.org/mount-rushmore-national-memorial-intro

___

Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton.