After Volcano Eruption in Guatemala, Re-creating a Truck Covered in Ash


How 727 photos taken in 29 minutes became an immersive 3D experience.

Screen capture of Augmented Reality experience of truck buried by Volcano in GuatemalaPublished OnCreditImage by Niko Koppel/The New York Times

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On June 3, Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala erupted, sending burning lava, rocks and gas surging down the slopes toward the communities at the volcano’s base. The village of San Miguel Los Lotes was swallowed by the volcano’s pyroclastic flow — a current of gases, sand, ash, rocks and tree trunks. More than 150 people are dead and 197 are still missing, many of whom are believed to be entombed in the debris left in the disaster’s wake.

Cellphone video shot by bystanders and local news media on the scene captured the pyroclastic flow rapidly engulfing the landscape.

I work on a team that focuses on immersive storytelling using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). My colleagues and I recognized an opportunity to convey the scale of this natural disaster in a new way, to bring our readers closer to the story by placing them at the scene and allowing them to examine it as if they were there.

On the morning of June 8, Mr. Volpe messaged me with a cellphone photo of a half-buried truck, its cab poking out from three and a half feet of ash and other debris, like the snout of a submerged crocodile.

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CreditDaniele Volpe for The New York Times

Although AR is an emerging medium, we still use traditional photography as a foundation. No special cameras are needed.

We taught Mr. Volpe on the spot how to shoot for photogrammetry, capturing the scene from every angle and later applying software that would assemble his hundreds of images into an accurate 3D model.

With AR, readers can then place a life-size or scale-model version of the truck in front of them.

“I shot as quickly as I could,” said Mr. Volpe, who described a column of ash spitting from the volcano while he circled the buried truck. “You told me to shoot about 150 pictures, but afterward I realized I’d shot close to five times that amount. I think it was the adrenaline.”

The whole scene was captured in 727 photographs by Mr. Volpe’s Nikon D800 camera in about 29 minutes. The photos were then uploaded to the photogrammetry program, which recreates the exact position where each photo was taken in order to construct the 3D model.

Video of Daniele Volpe’s Photographs of the TruckPublished OnCreditImage by Daniele Volpe

Although media attention had waned since the initial eruption, we deployed Nic Wirtz, a reporter based in Guatemala, who tracked down and interviewed residents of San Miguel Los Lotes who had survived the natural disaster. Their voices and his additional reporting of the rescue effort is included in the accompanying text by Elizabeth Malkin, a Times reporter based in Mexico City.