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Utah company brings landscapes to life via KSL.com


Original story published KSL.com August 2, 2016

LOGAN — Map-making is nearly as old as civilization itself. But a professor and his former student at Utah State University claim to have found a new way to do it.

They say their company — Creotre — has dramatically reduced the cost and improved the detail in the kind of big 3-D maps that are usually found in visitor centers.

"We're somewhere around a sixth of the cost you may have seen traditionally," said Eric Eliason, adjunct professor of business at USU.

One of the maps Creotre created was recently installed at the Kane County Visitors Center in Kanab. It shows all the points of interest in the region in 3-D detail, from Lake Powell to the Grand Canyon.

"I love this map," said Camille Johnson, Kane County's director of tourism. "It's exceeded my expectations. It's awesome."

She thinks tourists will benefit greatly if they come in before touring and look at the map.

"This is rugged territory," she said, "so I think it helps them visualize what they're going to experience and be a better visitor."

Eliason says the map-making business started because of his yen for outdoor recreation.

"I mountain bike a lot, I hike a lot," he said. "And I get in the backcountry and I'm always wondering what's just over the ridge."

After teaching a class on entrepreneurship a couple of years ago, he started discussing mapping issues with class member Brad Janssen, a student of landscape architecture. They brainstormed a new way of making 3-D maps without even thinking of it as a business.

"We just kind of wanted to do it to see if we could," Janssen recalled. "And then, once we saw how it turned out — the initial model — we saw this is a really cool product and something that we think a lot of people can enjoy."

The process begins with two-dimensional topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey. The familiar greenish maps, with looping contour lines to show elevations, have long been available in digital form. In a computer, the data can be converted into 3-D models. Then, the same data can be spit out in plastic by a 3-D printer.

Eventually, the process results in a table-sized plastic map, sometimes several inches thick. Creotre claims their maps are cheaper than those of competitors and they also have more accurate detail.

"Essentially the most detail that you can get on a 3-D map," Janssen said.

Each map typically gets a bit of spray painting and some final touch-ups to highlight specific points of interest. For example, a new map that will be displayed for competitors before this year's St. George Marathon has 26 mile markers that are highlighted with white paint.

Creotre has found another use for the map-making technology: the creation of art objects.

Elizabeth Hart was an art student when she joined the new company. Using her expertise in ceramics, she molds the 3-D maps in plaster. A plaster landscape that shows, say, Zion Canyon will then be painted with a decorative metal-flake, making it suitable to hang on a wall or placed on a coffee table as a conversation piece for the art-buying crowd.

"I think it's just people who appreciate art and also appreciate landscape," Hart said. "For me, landscape has been a pretty big inspiration to my own artwork."

Because the maps are cheaper, they're affordable for smaller museums and visitor centers. Four counties even bought them for use at search-and-rescue command posts.

"They've got the layout there," Eliason said. "They can explain it to everybody. They take it right on site."

The little project that begun for fun is turning into a serious business. So far, Creotre has sold its products in only three states, Utah, Arizona and Wyoming. But the production pipeline is full and they're hoping to expand.