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 OnJune 20, 2018CreditImage 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.

With AR, your phone becomes a bridge between the digital and physical worlds, enabling flat images to be displayed three-dimensionally through your device’s camera.

Hoping to learn more about what had happened in San Miguel Los Lotes, I reached out to the photographer Daniele Volpe, who had been documenting rescuers digging through the charred remains searching for any sign of life.

Mr. Volpe, who has lived in Guatemala for 11 years, arrived in San Miguel Los Lotes the day after the volcano erupted. He found dead cows, cindered garments hanging on clothes lines and living rooms engulfed in volcanic ash, looking like idle snow globes.

“My feeling about this frozen moment, I think about what happened in Pompeii,” said Mr. Volpe — originally from Priverno, Italy — referencing the archaeological site where people were fossilized by the lava of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. “Here, we are witness to a really similar case.”

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.

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 OnJune 20, 2018CreditImage 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 are included in the accompanying text by Elizabeth Malkin, a Times reporter based in Mexico City.

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Niko Koppel is a producer on the Immersive team, focusing on Augmented Reality experiences for breaking news.

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