VICKY QIAO – On the west edge of Death Valley National Park, a lone, fallen Joshua tree lies amid the Mojave Desert. For U2 fans around the world, the Joshua Tree is a cherished symbol of the band’s musical legacy. Edward Platero, for one, is on a special mission to preserve this piece of music history through digital technology. 

An entrepreneur and creator based in London, Ontario, Platero is the co-founder of VRcadia, a virtual reality lounge located in London, ON. and a hub for local artists. His passion for technology and the arts extends well beyond his job.

When the Irish rock band U2 released their hit album “The Joshua Tree” in 1987, Edward Platero was 13 and just starting to explore the music world. Thirty-three years later, he would create an ambitious project in honour of the album using 3D modelling. 

Album Cover of The Joshua Tree

Image source: YouTube

In March of 1987, “With or Without You” came out as the first single from the album and opened a new world for Platero. “The Joshua Tree came home with me that month, and completely mesmerized me. The music was so very raw, and the imagery on the jacket was something I would get lost in,” he wrote in his blog.

The iconic album transformed U2 into the biggest rock phenomenon in the world. The inspiration behind the album is, unsurprisingly, a Joshua tree. Being the lifelong fan he is, Platero knows the backstory by heart.

In December 1986, Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn went on a multi-day journey with the band members across the deserts of the American Southwest. With the mission of shooting for the band’s upcoming album, Corbijn pointed out the Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the dessert and suggested that they include them in their album artwork. Fascinated by the hardy, twisted plants, the band decided to name the album after the unique desert creature. 

While the group was driving on route 190 near Darwin, a lone-standing Joshua tree caught their attention. Joshua trees usually grow in crops, and it is extremely to see one standing alone. Corbijn captured photographs of the band members standing around and in front of the tree; the photos were later featured on the album cover.

“That spontaneous 20-minute photo session forever tied the Yucca brevifolia with the band,” wrote Platero. The album would be selected for preservation in the US National Recording Registry three decades later, and the Joshua Tree would be treasured by fans across the world.

Unfortunately, the Joshua Tree fell sometime around the year 2000. U2 fans from across the world have journeyed to the desert to visit the fallen tree, to experience the hallowed ground and to relive the precious moment in rock music history.

In 2012, Platero decided to experience the site while he was in California for an assignment. “The thing [tree] is in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s really strange that there’s this little patch of desert, that people from all around the world really make pretty big of a trip to see.”

While Platero was disappointed that the tree is no longer alive and standing, he took comfort in seeing the site transformed into a memorial. Notebooks, plaques, briefcases filled with flags from different countries; fans and visitors have left their personal items around the tree as a way of paying tribute to U2 and their music. 

Platero revisited the site in January 2020 — but this time he had a plan in mind. He brought his equipment to document the tree from all angles. He ended up taking 3,937 photographs of the fallen tree and its surroundings, which were later used to create the 3D model.

Image of the fallen Joshua Tree from above

Photographed by Platero

Visiting the historic site for the second time, Platero said he approached the experience differently— this time as “something I want to work on” instead of “something I get to visit.” He spent seven hours on the site from noon until dark. 

“It was a long and arduous process, but I made sure to capture every inch of the tree in order to capture its unique texture and all of the hidden treasures that are placed around the site,” Platero wrote.

The goal of Platero’s project is to digitally preserve this piece of musical history through 3D recreation. He said that he wanted to offer fans around the world the opportunity to see the tree without physically visiting the remote site. 

“What we want to be able to do is to allow the users to experience it digitally [and] interact with everything out there… to give this location to fans across the world,” said Platero. 

By creating a digital version of the site, Platero wants to make the experience accessible for fans with physical restrictions — like one of his personal friends, whose physical condition makes him incapable of visiting despite being a huge fan. 

Another consideration Platero had in mind was to preserve the tree from damages. He recalled reading an article in 2014 about a visitor sawing a piece of the tree away as a souvenir. The article included the witness’ account of the incident: 

“This past Sunday, I made my proverbial yearly hike out to the Tree with my dog to reminisce only to find that some hack and I do mean hack, decided it was a bright idea to take a hacksaw to one of the Tree’s limbs – evidently to remove an inch thick cross-section as a souvenir. Are you kidding me?”

Platero was deeply disturbed and saddened by what he read and refers to it as a “grotesque tale.” He hopes that providing a digital version may help reduce human contact in the long run.

In terms of the production process, Platero said it has been a challenge. Working with close to 4,000 photographs, there was a lot of data to process and he spent countless hours to finally finish the model. He broke down the process into three parts: capture, assemble and model.

Image of a standing Joshua tree

Photographed by Platero

Each of the photos captured on-site was processed and edited before going through the Photogrammetry stage. Platero described the process as “deriving metric information about an object through measurements made on the photograph of the object.” This process enables the modelling software to generate and assemble a 3D model of the photographed object.

Platero’s vision for the Joshua Tree Project goes beyond the 3D model. He has been working toward a platform for his fellow U2 fans to share their unique experiences, as well as implementing the digital development of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

While visiting the site this year, Platero had the opportunity to meet with fans around the world who have incredible stories. For many U2 fans he encountered during the trip, the Joshua Tree embodies so much more than a fallen tree or a best-selling album.

By incorporating the story-telling aspect into his project, Platero hopes to create a digital logbook for people to document their visits and share their personal stories. “[It] serves as a digital companion for the physical site,” he said. He has been asking people to submit their stories as well as pictures of their past visits. 

Though Platero is still in the process of collecting stories, a few lovely tales have already been put up on the project website — a visit for a high school reunion, a spontaneous stop during a road trip, and a sing-along session to the entire album on-site (link to stories).  

As the site has been transformed into a memorial site, the sense of community and memory is part of what makes the Joshua Tree so special. Platero asked people to share what they left behind in addition to their stories. The answers range from “a pocket knife” to “lots of love for the greatest album ever released.”

Suzie, a fan from Scotland who shared her story on the website, left a handmade plaque when she first visited in 2015. Like Platero, she returned for a second time in 2018 to “try and soak in the experience, the first visit had been so surreal it never really sunk in!” Suzie and her friends left another small, white plaque with their names and country flags on it. 

The memorial site with the fallen Joshua Tree, covered in momentoes

Photographed by Platero

Although the 3D model of the Joshua Tree is completed and showcased on the website, Platero is eager to further develop the project and “bring the tree to life” through augmented reality and virtual reality.

The AR development would allow users to project the tree in physical space from their mobile devices – in their living rooms, for instance. The virtual reality experience, on the other hand, would enable users to “walk-around” the site freely with VR technology.

“We are allowing people to use the device in their pocket as a window to the location,” said Platero, who is currently in the process of developing the interactive AR/VR experience.

As the co-founder of VRcadia, Platero works with musicians and visual artists to integrate VR into a range of creative projects. The Artist in Residence program provides an opportunity for local artists to explore and create art in virtual reality.

“As a creator, looking as VR as a creation tool just completely opened my mind up,” Platero said. He has just finished filming a music video project, where VR effects were incorporated into the video aesthetic.

Platero said digital tools can play an important role in arts, culture and history. He said technologies like 3D scanning would preserve historical buildings even when they are damaged, like Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral that was burned down last year.

“It will allow us to visit places that we may not ever be able to [visit] or places that have long been gone,” said Platero. He also mentioned that with travelling being impossible with the current global pandemic, digital technology can enrich many aspects of people’s isolated lives.

But for now, people can experience the site of Joshua Tree through Platero’s 3D model while social distancing. Even if you’re not a U2 fan or have never listened to their music (like me), odds are that you can still feel the sense of community shared among the devout Joshua Tree lovers across the world. (Visit the project website here!)

This article was originally published on April 19, 2020 in Fish and Water.

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