Thursday, June 20, 2013

The third dimension

I think I'm slowly starting to grok the idea of a 3D Printer.

I've been reading about 3D printers for years. I know several friends and co-workers who actually have such a printer, or who have access to one at work. I've read about many of the suggested reasons why such a device would be useful, but many of those scenarios have seemed unlikely, remote from my daily life, not something I saw myself doing.

This week, however, we happened to be in Yosemite Valley.

As everyone does, we stopped at Lower Yosemite Falls for the glorious, iconic view.

The Lower Yosemite Falls trail is a short, mostly-level, mostly-paved trail which takes you up to the base of the falls, where you can feel the mist on your face, scramble around on the rocks, eat your sandwich, take some pictures. You can bring young children there; you can bring children of all ages there (though it's a bit steep for a wheelchair). It's the perfect destination for the Yosemite beginner.

Now, when you see the falls from the valley floor, you automatically look up, to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls.

And it's not long before you learn that there is a trail that leads to the overlook at the top of Upper Yosemite Falls.

And you think to yourself: Wow! I bet the view from there is awesome! I should take that trail and see that view!

But: the Lower Yosemite Falls trail is nothing like the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. The one is short, the other is long. The one is shaded, the other is fully-exposed. The one is level, the other is an unrelenting uphill slog which ascends 2,700 feet in 3.6 miles, and then returns the same way you came. People die on the Upper Yosemite Falls trail.

All of this is hard to convey.

So, as part of a major rework of the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail, somebody at the National Park Service (or at Lawrence Halprin's architecture firm) at some point had an absolutely brilliant idea: they designed and installed a gorgeous bronze relief sculpture of the falls, showing the Upper Yosemite Falls trail.

I've been reading topographic maps for 40 years, and I'm pretty good at reading them. I go on lots of hikes, and I spend a lot of time trying to understand what a topographic map is telling me about my upcoming trail. Learning to read a topo is hard. It takes practice, and it's easy to make a mistake, and it's easy to mis-read your topo, thinking that a ridge is a canyon, or that a dome is a valley.

But the new bronze sculpture is immediately comprehensible. Everybody just walks up to it and understands it, with no training or explanation necessary.

So, bringing an overly-long story to a close, it occurred to me, as I re-visited the sculpture and watched both my granddaughter and my mother-in-law interact with it, that now I want to do this with every trail I visit, and this is a perfect scenario for how I would actually use a 3D Printer:

  1. Find some trail I'm interested in
  2. Bring up the corresponding topo map on my computer and highlight the trail of interest
  3. Press a button, and have the 3D Printer print me out a relief sculpture of my trail, topographically accurate, so I can see what it's going to be like

OK, not everybody will want to do this. And I realize that the basic technology is not quite ready for this. But I think I'm only slightly ahead of my time in visualizing this.

And I wonder if I will be alive (and will still be an active trail hiker) in 5, 10, or 15 years, when this becomes not only possible, but routine.

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