How to recreate a 3D digital face based on a skull

With its FaciLe theme-based chair, Sorbonne University has opened up an innovative field of research involving the use of scientific calculation and 3D digital viewing techniques to reconstruct a person’s face based on the cranium. The research will involve forensic applications for the legal identification of human remains, as well as applications in paleontology and archaeology, so as to determine how humans looked in the past.

Facial reconstruction: from sculpture to scientific calculation

Current 3D facial reconstruction methods have certain limitations. The FaciLe chair is taking an ambitious approach to overcoming these limitations based on Sorbonne University’s multi-disciplinary nature.


1. Context


Reconstructing a person’s face based on the cranium is often the last resort when all other procedures for identifying human remains have failed. This method is also used in paleontology and archaeology – for example, to put a face on man’s ancestors or a historic personage.

The traditional method for achieving this involves modeling the face by hand, but the drawback is that it leaves a lot to the sculptor’s subjective interpretation. Faces reconstructed in this way often do not allow the person to be identified, hence the idea of computerizing the process to obtain a more objective, reliable result and to be able to quickly provide several versions of a face to facilitate identification.

This is the aim of the FaciLe chair at Sorbonne University. Created in June 2014 for a period of two years, its purpose is to explore innovative leads and to find effective, reliable 3D digital facial-reconstruction tools.


2. Main areas of research


Other teams throughout the world have already worked on this issue, but the software tools they have designed mainly use statistical approaches – anthropometric tables, for example, specifying the average thickness of soft tissue at various points on the face according to ethnic group, gender and age of the individual. From one person to another, however, the thickness of these tissues may vary by several centimeters in relation to the average, so this method does not necessarily provide a face that is accurate enough to identify a person.

The FaciLe team is experimenting with another alternative: mathematical modeling, in other words, producing mathematical equations from the links between the morphology of the skull and that of the face – the laws that make a face what it is.

This is a real challenge, since these rules are, for the most part, not yet firmly established, but Sorbonne University has a valuable asset: its multi-disciplinary nature. Scientific calculation and simulation, applied mathematics, biology, maxillofacial surgery, forensic medicine, anthropology, archaeology and bio-mechanics: FaciLe brings together a uniquely wide-ranging set of skills to facial reconstruction. 


3. Partners in the project


The chair is led by Sorbonne University’s Institut des sciences du calcul et des données (Institute for Computing and Data), whose director, Pascal Frey, also coordinates the FaciLe program (read his interview).

Aside from this institute, the chair also involves seven laboratories that represent four Sorbonne University entities:

  • Université Pierre et Marie Curie:
    • Jacques Louis Lions laboratory (applied mathematics)
    • R. Escourolle neuropathology laboratory
    • Stomatology and maxillofacial surgery department
    • Institut médico-légal de Paris (French state forensic institute)
  • The National Museum of Natural History – Paris: mixed research unit – eco-anthropology and ethnobiology
  • Paris-Sorbonne University: mixed research unit – Far East and Mediterranean (archaeology, history)
  • University of Technology of Compiègne: bio-mechanics and bio-engineering laboratory


4. The project team


Given its multi-disciplinary approach, FaciLe was intended at the outset to be a revolving chair.

  • For the first year (2014-2015), the senior chair-holder was Fabrice Demeter, a paleo-anthropologist from the National Museum of Natural History – Paris and an expert on the human skull.
  • In 2015-2016, the chair has been held by Peter Deuflhard, a German researcher and a specialist in mathematical modeling.

There is also a junior chair-holder, Maya de Buhan, a research fellow in applied mathematics at the University Paris Descartes, plus two PhD students:

  • Chiara Nardoni, mathematician
  • Lydie Uro, mathematician and medical student

Find out more about this team and its work

Read more

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