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Joanna Carver/Medill

The (art)n virtual reality lab on Washington Avenue uses 3D imagery to lend a new perspective to physiology, viruses, abstract mathematics and art.

Virtual reality lab pioneers 3D art and science

by Joanna Carver
Aug 07, 2012



A 3D visualization of a healthy brain scan of the first person believed to have fully recovered from autism.



One of art(n)'s 3D visualizations depicts a heart and lungs.


Joanna Carver/Medill

Ellen Sandor founded (art)n in the 1980s to create 3D visualizations that fuse art and science.


Joanna Carver/Medill

Ellen Sandor, founder of (art)n laboratory,and lead 3D artist Diana Torres place a screen  that acts the same as 3D glasses to make a completed image pop out at the viewer.



A 3D visualization of Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak's Nobel Prize winning work on telomeres, a region of our chromosomes hypothesized to be associated with aging and cancer.

“It’s not a science, it’s an art,” said Ellen Sandor, a driving force of virtual reality at the (art)n laboratory she founded in Chicago.

One glance over the mind-bending array of 3D visualizations in her gallery at 954 W. Washington Ave. makes it clear that Sandor and her lab creatively straddles the line, fusing art and science. 

The lab currently displays 3D art depicting the AIDS virus, the healthy brain scans of a person who recovered from autism and a clinical view of lung cancer. It all jumps right out at the viewer but serves science with imaging information inaccessible with other technologies. Then there’s the other dimension.

“Remember, we’re artists, so whatever we do must have emotional content,” Sandor said.

Sandor began creating the visualizations in 1981, when she was asked to make a 3D "poster." This was before 3D was anywhere near mainstream and well before the era of desktop computer imaging.

In the beginning, she used a cumbersome camera to create the multiple perspectives she needed for 3D by taking several pictures of a diorama, an object or scientific graphics. She worked collaboratively with scientists and artists.

Now, everything is done on computers with proprietary software that photographs and interleaves 64 views of a scene. Lead 3D artist Diana Torres deftly “sculpts” images in a computer, manipulating lighting, color and texture to create 3D art. 

Sandor invented a term to go with the work her lab invented—PHSColograms, for the hybrid combination of photography, holography, sculpture and computer graphics.

Each image is photographed in the computer from 64 slightly different angles for the interleaving process to create the 3D illusion. The images printed out from the process appear blurry, but a thin barrier screen placed over these mural-sized prints acts in the same manner as 3D movie glasses to bring everything into perfect, eye-popping perspective.

“I came from a drawing background,” said Torres, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I was very excited about technology and what Disney was doing. I fell in love with that.”

The lab also focuses on imaging architecture -  real and imagined - by playing with images of actual structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as well as creating 3D visualizations of buildings that were planned but never built. Some of Chicago’s best known artists such as Karl Wirsum and the late Ed Paschke went high-tech with their own iconic imagery to collaborate with Sandor in 3D.

Now, she said, because 3D movies have become more mainstream, people are more familiar with art forms such as hers.

The images of viruses and illnesses are technically accurate, of course. But they go a step beyond. “They’re not just scientific visualizations,” Sandor said. “They are transcendent in nature."