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When Earth is Like an Egg: 3D Terrain Visualization

Some of the most satisfying breakthroughs happen when technology gets used in a way it was never intended. While working with our graphic design group at Sasaki on ways to generate a dot pattern for a decorative screen, we came across some open-source software called StippleGen. Stippling is a way of creating an image by means of dots. StippleGen was created to optimize stippling for, among other things, egg painting. The software does a great job of laying out dots with greater density on the darker areas of the image while keeping a comfortable spacing between the dots. What's more, the voronoi algorithm it uses gives an irregular, organic pattern. The ah-ha moment came when I realized this could be applied to a different problem, visualizing terrain; specifically, optimizing terrain meshes in 3D software based off elevation data (a.k.a. Digital Elevation Model (DEM)).

 

Here's a typical use of StippleGen:

 
Used to create this: 
 
 

So how do we get from eggs to terrain? A given terrain, unlike an egg, is typically a mix of high variation areas, like canyons, with more uniform areas, like plains or plateaus. A typical DEM heightmap can be seen in the following image (top left) alongside some more familiar, human-readable representations of the same terrain that you might see on maps. Shaded relief is a useful trick for representing terrain in 2D where the terrain appears to be lit from one side.

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