3D Scanning: Applying Science to Ghost Hunting

3D laser scanners are known for their use in the engineering and manufacturing industries, but the entertainment industry? Not so much. After its introduction in 1998, companies whose tasks could obviously be simplified with laser scanners, such as product design and manufacturing, immediately implemented laser scanning. However, in the past 12 years, laser scanning has reached an ever-widening range of industries and organizations that can also benefit from 3D scanning’s ability to gather accurate physical data of objects, spaces and environments, a recent example of which can be seen in the National Geographic Channel’s use of laser scanning to examine the interior of East Philadelphia State Penitentiary – known as one of the most haunted prisons in America – for a television special about the haunting facility.

According to National Geographic, since the prison’s official closure in 1971, prison keepers and visitors have heard “strange voices, cries and tormented screams, while others have seen shadows moving in and out of cells.” Previously featured on several programs about America’s most haunted places, the penitentiary was known for its long queues before the National Geographic Channel took its turn. But the prison had never been thoroughly examined with the tools of hard science, in addition to the suggestive tools commonly used by parapsychologists and psychic researchers, such as tape recorders and EVP video. As a result, viewers were able to travel inside the prison thanks to the 3D animations produced from the triangulation scan and see exactly where ominous noises and strange sightings allegedly occur, as revealed by the sensors of movement, night vision and infrared cameras.

The penitentiary’s main subject of exploration was its 12th cell block, in which more ghostly phenomena are said to occur than in other cell blocks. For the National Geographic scientists, the challenge was to determine whether the block of cells actually displayed unexplained events, or whether these events were the result of those who believed in ghosts and therefore perceived the phenomena unwittingly due to the ghostly reputation of the prison. To get an answer, the researchers decided to use laser scanning in combination with the technology mentioned above to identify any events in the cell block 12. As for the 3D scanning, triangulation scanners were chosen for the its ability to scan relatively large spaces with incredible precision.

In the end, as with other famous hauntings, the ghostly events of the Eastern State Penitentiary could not be scientifically legitimized or explained. But the presence of laser scanning, among other technologies, offered viewers a greater level of knowledge to draw their own conclusions. In addition to being used for special documentaries, laser scanning is also commonly used by the entertainment industry to create video game characters whose movements are based on real human movements.