Expert rock climbing routes recreated indoors using 3-D modeling and digital fabrication

Expert rock climbing routes recreated indoors using 3-D modeling and digital fabrication
A crux of an outdoor climbing route (left) vs. one using fabricated holds (right). Credit: Dartmouth College

Through a combination of 3-D modeling, digital fabrication and other techniques, a Dartmouth-led research team has replicated sections of popular, outdoor rock climbing routes on an indoor climbing wall. The study demonstrates how these technologies can be used strategically to reproduce large-scale environments by considering how users interact with such sites. The study may be the first of its kind.

The research will be presented on May 9 at the 35th Annual ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver, Colo., and will be published as part of the conference proceedings.

The research team reconstructed the most challenging sections or "cruxes" of two expert climbing sites outside, New Hampshire's "Things As They Are Now (TATAN)" and Utah's "Pilgrimage," on a climbing wall indoors. Both sites have a difficulty rating of 5.12a. The study focused on the key features in each crux that the climber used for the ascent, as fabricating an entire crux would be cost prohibitive.

To replicate the climbing routes indoors, the team created 3D reconstructions of the rock walls using multi-view stereo. They also shot reference video of the climber's ascent to capture where he supported his body and to estimate his skeletal poses, including the contact regions for his hands and feet on the rock wall. This information was critical to isolating the rock wall's geometry, which informed the shapes of the holds and where they would need to be fastened later on the indoor wall.

Once the routes, rock features and climbing holds were 3D modeled, the team used rapid prototyping, and molding and casting techniques, to create climbing holds similar to those found at indoor climbing gyms. The holds are first fabricated out of foam using a CNC router, which naturally has a gritty texture; then the final hold is cast with high strength resin.

The study compared climbers' moves on the indoor replicas to those outdoors and found a close visual match between the climbers' poses on the original and replication. The climbers agreed that the movement felt similar and indicated that they liked the idea of climbing a replica of a that was located nearly 2,000 miles away.

"We're bridging between large-scale and small-scale fabrication. By fabricating only key pieces of the rock face, we're able to recreate outdoor environments without the need for oversized gantries or other non-standard manufacturing equipment," says lead author and rock climbing enthusiast, Emily Whiting, an assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth College. Whiting and co-author Ladislav Kavan, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, used to climb together when they were postdocs at ETH Zurich. "Since there's limited time and accessibility at remote climbing locations, the ability to train at a convenient indoor gym can make the difference between success and failure," adds Whiting.

Outdoor climbing routes have long served as a natural source of inspiration for creating training tools for the climbing community. For example, the "campus board," an inclined board with thin horizontal slats, which was invented by Wolfgang Güllich in 1988, continues to be found in many indoor climbing gyms today. It is credited with enabling some of the best climbers to help train for some of the toughest terrain in the world. In like manner, replicas of outdoor routes using fabricated holds have the potential to provide climbers with invaluable site-specific training.

The team hopes that their work inspires future research in environment-scale fabrication as well as related scientific and technological questions, including measuring and replicating friction properties of natural materials, and studying the biomechanics of human locomotion in challenging conditions.

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May 08, 2017
Be the first to make a stupid joke about it being an 'uphill climb' for the technology. It'll be a sure sign that you've 'lost your grip'.

May 09, 2017
As a professional routesetter I find this research to be both intriguing and hilarious. It really highlights the relationship between indoor and outdoor rock climbing. Even if we can exactly replicate high quality outdoor climbs, do we want to? Often times the answer is no. As a routesetter I am inspired by certain types of movement found outdoors, but exact replication is very rarely what I shoot for. I think this technology is a perfect example of "reductionism". Even if we replicate these environments down to the minute details who is to say that they are superior to those created through far less effort by means of human ingenuity. That's not to say that I don't think this technology has an application, It's just that by choosing routesetting as their example they actually served to highlight the technology's weaknesses. It will be interesting to see where this goes, but I know that we wont be seeing any outdoor routes recreated by these means in a gym any time soon.

May 09, 2017
Cool. I'm so impressed at how far the sport has come since my day. I still have a few petons in my collection of old outlawed gear.

May 09, 2017
I would not be surprised if we'd get entire rock faces printed at some point (as they note, cost is still prohibitive - but cost can only come down with 3D printing in the future)

Even if we can exactly replicate high quality outdoor climbs, do we want to?

Why not? If they are particularly challenging why not take what nature already provides?
I also think it might be good practice for those who want to make the jump from indoor to outdoor climbing but aren't sure whether the skillset they learned is adequate. The more 'realistic' the indoor climb the better the chances outdoor.

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