Graphics expert bringing caving to masses

Creating immersive video experience that users could traverse on their own

Exploring Claustral Canyon in Australia is probably for only the most intrepid adventurers, as it requires rappelling down a mile-long staircase of three steep waterfalls nicknamed “The Black Hole of Calcutta.” But if Luke Farrer has his way, a (virtual) descent into the 50-million-year-old natural wonder will be accessible to anyone.

Farrer, a graphics expert from Brookline, plans to spend 10 days in Claustral Canyon in February, shooting every inch with an advanced scanner that will allow him to create an immersive, three-dimensional video experience for patrons at museums and galleries.

He’s not interested in simply panning the canyon like a hot real estate listing or even matching the quality of a blockbuster 3-D movie. What Farrer has in mind is the next level of virtual reality — a digital model so lifelike that people can use a joystick or mouse to journey through the canyon, moving up and down or left and right, as if they were there.

“I want other people to experience this,” Farrer said. “Nature has a true magic to it, but most people never experience it. I think a lot of people are scared to go into these places, but there’s something so powerful about being in nature’s most beautiful spots, and I want others to feel that.”


Luke Farrer of Brookline, shown above rappelling into Claustral Canyon’s “Black Hole of Calcutta” in Australia, hopes to raise enough money to photograph in 3-D the mile-deep canyon shaft.
Luke Farrer of Brookline, shown above rappelling into Claustral Canyon’s “Black Hole of Calcutta” in Australia, hopes to raise enough money to photograph in 3-D the mile-deep canyon shaft.

Farrer has no museums lined up yet, but his ideal scenarios would have viewers donning a headset using the virtual reality viewing technology Oculus Rift that is popular among video game players, or on giant surround-type screens that make people feel as if they are inside the environment. The film would not simply display select areas of Claustral Canyon, but rather create a digital model that viewers can navigate, going wherever they please.

The scanner is the same tool used by architects to create precise digital replicas of building structures, and by criminal investigators to document the exact location of evidence at a crime scene. It converts surfaces into data points to construct three-dimensional models, but does not read color like a traditional camera.


That is why Farrer, who scouted Claustral Canyon in June, plans to bring a photographer along with two experienced guides on his second trip. Together they must abseil down jagged rock, hauling the 60-pound scanner and tripod, sometimes swimming through icy water to get from one landing area to another. They will wear wetsuits at all times and must be vigilant about protecting the scanner from water damage, or the trek will be for naught.

When he arrives on a stable surface, Farrer will set the scanner on its tripod and capture every rock and crevice in sight, logging 10 million points in four minutes. At the same time, the photographer will snap 360 degrees of pictures. Farrer estimates his team will have to repeat the process 200 times.

Graphics expert Luke Farrer scanned images in Waialeale Crater in Kauai, Hawaii.
Graphics expert Luke Farrer scanned images in Waialeale Crater in Kauai, Hawaii.MAD SPELUNKER

After returning to Brookline, he will “wallpaper” the photographs onto the 3-D scans, which would otherwise be colorless, in a post-production effort that will take four or five months. The finished product will include audio recordings from inside the canyon.

To fund his exploit, Farrer is attempting to raise $37,000 on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website where people solicit pledges to pay for projects and business ideas. He stood about $7,500 short on Tuesday evening and has until Thursday to reach the goal or he will receive no money.


Three-dimensional simulations are a new frontier for museums, with personalized experiences still unsettled territory. In one prominent example, Harvard University collaborated with 3-D digital software company Dassault Systèmes, a French firm with US headquarters in Waltham, to unveil “The Giza Project” at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010. The award-winning exhibit enabled visitors to take virtual tours of Egyptian tombs, but the experience was akin to watching an IMAX movie, in which every viewer sees the same picture as selected by the moviemaker.

Giza Project lead technical artist Rus Gant said what Farrer is attempting to do seems much harder — a virtual environment where each visitor controls his or her own movements. “The Holy Grail is to get that out into a major museum on the floor for the public,” Gant said. “The question is how do you manage the cost, and keep it low maintenance. You can’t just put out an Oculus Rift for anyone who walks in the door to play with. It’d be broken within an hour.”

Undeterred, Farrer hopes Claustral Canyon will be the first of six remote locations scanned by his new business, Mad Spelunker, which he launched early this year. He picked natural environments that few people visit and started with Claustral Canyon because, though it is vast, it is also more manageable than others on his agenda, which includes the Son Doong Cave in Vietnam, the biggest cave in the world.

Not long ago, Farrer seemed an unlikely candidate to lead a daring expedition. Now 43, he describes his younger self as bowing to the conventions and expectations of a privileged upbringing in London. He attended Oxford University, then law school, and went to work at the same firm as his father.


He hated it, and would sometimes leave work early to bike around London. Outdoor activities became an escape, and he got hooked on cave exploration at Gaping Gill in North Yorkshire one holiday. Farrer finally mustered the guts to chart his own course while working temporarily in Boston in 2000. He earned a computer science degree, worked for most of the next decade at Geometric Informatics, a 3-D software company in Somerville, and decided last year to start a company merging his love of technology and the great outdoors.

“Ultimately, I think we’ve all got to figure out what it is we want to get out of life,” Farrer said. “A lot of us never really answer that question. But once you figure out what it is that really gets you going — and I feel I’ve discovered that — it’s like there’s no stopping you.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.