The great outdoors is great and all, but you're at the mercy of the elements, and rock climbers are particularly put out by rain. Indoor climbing walls don't always capture the nuances of nature, so a team at Dartmouth College has developed a technique to bring the outdoors in. Rather than try to recreate an entire rock formation, the researchers studied how climbers interacted with it, made models of the key parts of the geometry and arranged them on an artificial wall to replicate the experience of the real thing.

The muses of nature for the researchers' work were two popular, difficult climbs, called Things As They Are Now (TATAN) in New Hampshire, and Pilgrimage in Utah. First, the team filmed climbers as they ascended the most difficult sections (called "cruxes") of the natural formations. Studying the video, the team could see which bits the climber was using as hand and foot holds and where he was resting their weight, then took 3D scans of those key areas.

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These scans were used to make digital 3D models, which were then cast into the types of holds regularly used on indoor climbing walls, made from high-strength resin from a foam mold fabricated using a CNC router. The video of the climber's technique shows the poses during the climb and the distances between the holds, which the team could then use to build an overall model of the route used during the ascent. That in turn tells them where to arrange the holds on the indoor wall, to best replicate the real-world climb.

"We're bridging between large-scale and small-scale fabrication," says Emily Whiting, lead author of the study. "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. 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."

By comparing video of the same climbers on the outdoor formation and its indoor replica, the team was able to confirm (visually, at least) that the two were a close match, with the climbers matching almost exactly their same route on the recreated climb. When quizzed, the climbers themselves agreed.

The research was published online and will be presented at the Computer Human Interface conference in Denver this week. The team demonstrates their technique in the video below.

Source: Dartmouth College via EurekAlert