I'm told when a popular cable television science series unveils a new episode about Stonehenge sometime next year, Ball State University will play a starring role.
A 3-D computer simulation of Stonehenge created by Ball State's Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts will allow producers of "The Universe" to demonstrate how the ancient monument may have been used to track movements of the sun and moon.
The History Channel 2, which airs "The Universe," recently hired a production crew and dispatched it to the institute's campus laboratory to put the simulator through its paces, interview its creators and admire the detail they built into their model.
In addition to a painstaking re-creation of the monument itself, the simulation also uses NASA data and projections to model the positions of the sun and moon for that location on virtually any date in history.
Darryl Rehr—who wrote and directed the Stonehenge episode, which has not yet received a premier date—says it would have taken years to capture in real life all of the sun and moon alignments the producers wanted to explore.
"You'd need a zillion cameras, and you'd have to deal with the weather," Rehr said.
"England is cloudy much of the time, so you can't count on seeing the sun or the moon when you need to see them."
It was clear that a computer simulation would be the best solution, but building something like that from scratch would have been a time-consuming task for the History Channel's usual graphics developers.
"So, I put out feelers to all of my contacts to see what might be out there, and we heard about Ball State's model," Rehr says.
A few images from "Virtual Stonehenge" had been featured in a BBC television series over the summer and caught the eye of one of Rehr's colleagues. A producer for "The Universe" then called John Fillwalk, director of IDIA and an associate professor of electronic art at Ball State, and arrangements for a video shoot were finalized.
When Rehr arrived on campus in mid-November, he quickly realized he'd made the right call.
"I watched them go through the simulation, and it was just wonderful. It was every bit as good as I expected it to be — and more," he said.
Fillwalk says the simulation is as accurate as the team could make it, using detailed archaeological diagrams of where pieces of the monument actually sit. The size and shape of the pieces also are duplicated as precisely as possible.
"For the stones that are there, it's very accurate in its representation," Fillwalk said.
"There are a lot of stones that are simply missing, though, and what we did in those cases was model typical stones to fill in the gaps."
To simulate the development of Stonehenge over time, Fillwalk says the team enlisted the aid of Michael Parker Pearson, a British archaeologist who has studied the site for years and is one of the world's foremost authorities on the monument.
"I contacted him and got him on board as an adviser," Fillwalk said.
"He proposes five stages for how the physical structure of Stonehenge evolved during its construction. We worked with his interpretation for our model."
The Ball State artists began work on Virtual Stonehenge about a year ago to demonstrate the capabilities of a celestial alignment tool they had created, making use of the NASA sun and moon data. They figured the tool would be of use to museums, archaeologists and astronomers.
"We wanted to show the potential of our technology, and Stonehenge is the mother of all sites with suspected celestial alignments," Fillwalk said.
"It was the natural place to start."
Once word of their creation got out, however, interest came from unexpected sources: television producers.
"First the BBC called, and then the History Channel," Fillwalk said.
"We're excited about it, of course, but it really wasn't what we expected. It sort of snowballed ahead of itself."