Reed Magazine February 2003
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By Robin Tovey ’97
Photos By Steve Wanke

From mapping Mars to modeling DNA to mulling over literature, Reedie discourse has gone digital.

John Waugh ’04, art–computer science

John Waugh is a master of the fine art of crossover pursuits. The junior art–computer science major has been studying studio art at Reed for three years and will study computer science at Columbia University for the next two. Currently he spends much of his time in the new digital media lab in Reed’s art building, the high-tech workshop where he is converting NASA satellite data into a 3-D model representing the topography of Mars. Studio art professor Ethan Jackson discovered that NASA provides this data from its Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter free for downloading and brought on board Waugh and Drew Skillman ’02, digital media lab assistant, to render it in three dimensions.

At first, the goal was simply to create a two-dimensional representation of the topographic data and focus only on areas of interest, as the files are too large to render in 3-D all at once. However, the data was not in a convenient format for a program like Photoshop to handle, so it became Waugh’s charge to write a program to convert the satellite data into a grayscale picture. Next, Waugh and Skillman worked with a professional program called Maya to make an actual 3-D model out of this terrain, concentrating on one small rectangle on the map. They used Maya’s built-in programming language to generate the 3-D landscapes; they also benefited from the advice of Jim Fix, computer scientist in the mathematics department, about methods for turning elevation data into polygons for better presentation on the computer.

Waugh will likely continue to work on this project over the summer, and he is thinking about using the 3-D topography to create more artistic scenes. So far he has found this project to be a great opportunity for combining two passions: “Being an art–computer science major, I love programming as well as creating images. Plus, it is really rewarding to use real-world (though not this world) satellite data to create an image. When I run the program on one of the NASA files and then actually get to ‘look’ at the mountains and ravines and craters of Mars, it’s a pretty cool experience.”

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Reed Magazine February
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