Founded in 2013 by Yves Ubelmann, Iconem puts new technologies to work preserving endangered heritage. Its missions include the digital conservation of sites and passing down cultural diversity to future generations.
An architect by training and a graduate of the École de Versailles, you now lead the company Iconem, which you founded in 2013 and which uses new technologies to support heritage. What has your career path looked like ?
During my architectural studies, I worked on archaeological sites in Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, studying their structures and drawing blueprints. I became aware of how rapidly this heritage is disappearing, due to wars, looting, urban development and population growth. To tackle this emergency, we needed appropriate technologies to create digital copies of sites that are disappearing, thus preserving their memory and raising awareness of the issue. So I contacted Jean Ponce who, as part of his research at the École Normale Supérieure, had developed algorithms to create 3D images from photos. It's really the combination of this photogrammetry and the use of drones that has made it possible to obtain results that can help preserve the memory of human cultures – which is the core of our work at Iconem.
What does your work look like on site, then in your Paris offices ?
On site, we always take hundreds of thousands of images. In general, we only stay for a few days or even a few hours because we work on sites located in conflict zones. We process these images in Paris and model the locations in three dimensions. The servers align each image taken on site in space and form a dot cloud of pixels that allows for a 3D reconstruction. The videomaps featured in the « Ancient Cities » (Cités millénaires) exhibition, presented at the Institute of the Arab World in 2018-2019, are thus made up of these billions of points !
Are these technologies widely used ?
When we started out 10 years ago, we were the first ones using these technologies. Today, they are rapidly becoming more popular in the industrial, urban planning and architectural sectors.
The results are very impressive. Will these new technologies replace more traditional techniques ?
With traditional survey techniques, the process took a very long time: in one afternoon, we could barely establish 200 points. Now, millions are generated in minutes. The fact is, new technologies tend to replace more traditional techniques. But I still believe that they will not replace everything, especially in the field of archaeology. Digital technology remains a technical tool for thinking about the complexity of a site, but it is not intended to reduce our contact with reality.
In your opinion, what is the importance of mediation and public awareness ?
Awareness is essential: the general public and decision-makers must become aware that heritage is under threat. To take the example of « Ancient Cities », for this exhibition we offered images that are very beautiful, but which at the same time show a very raw reality, with the aim of really striking the visitor. In addition to raising awareness, our work also seeks to restore the sites, thanks to all the documentation that we can produce, and to combat the trafficking of works of art: working with archaeologists makes it possible to determine the nature of the objects that have been taken and to alert Interpol to their circulation.
Do you see the development of VR, including in the form of « serious games », as promising ?
What interests us about the 3D material we create is being able to use new media to tell stories differently, whether that means VR, videomapping or video games. We work with visual artists or storytellers to tell interactive stories and guide the visitor through a site. Together with Ubisoft and the Arab World Institute, we have created a VR experience exploring the heart of Mosul and Aleppo as part of the « Ancient Cities » exhibition. We have also produced Monument VR, which part of the selection this year at the PIXII festival. VR allows us to show sites on a 1-to-1 scale. Specialists can see more and approach the elements more intuitively than when looking at a computer. This is an interesting tool for education and science, in addition to its uses in museums and cultural institutions.
You are currently developing a collaborative platform. What is its purpose ?
We want to expand access to our 3D models and also bring scientists and the general public closer together. The platform is under development. We will add narrative layers, suggest a tour route and add measurement tools so that archaeologists can undertake the surveys they deem useful.
What are your projects in France and abroad ?
We are carrying out remote training with Yemen, Libya and Cambodia to train archaeologists in our photography techniques and enable them to scan the sites themselves. This makes it possible to increase the skills of the professionals in the countries with which we work, carry out major digitisation programmes and maintain a strong local presence – which is the key to our work. If we can really help the local professionals, then we will have completed our mission. With AlUla, the French Development Agency of Afalula in Saudi Arabia, we have made a film, Hegra, a loop in time, which recreates the Nabatean past of the ancient site of Hegra in a 3D, photorealistic manner. Thanks to archaeological data, we have been able to accurately reconstruct the details of houses, characters, their costumes and animals. The film will be shown in various exhibitions and also at the Hegra Museum, planned for 2023-2024.
In France, we are launching a department dedicated to video within Iconem to be able to produce images for digital exhibitions and create events for the general public that blend a staged experience and total immersion. There is a huge creative field and we will explore all the possibilities.
Iconem is referenced in the « Digital Mediation and Cultural Innovation » Catalogue.
Available in English, this catalogue brings together French structures active in the sector of cultural innovation and digital mediation, in order to promote the marketing of their know-how and expertise internationally.
It is aimed at the partners and interlocutors of the French cultural network abroad : museums, heritage sites, cultural centres, public and private decision-makers in the cultural and tourism sector, and aims to promote French expertise in the field of digital engineering and mediation.
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