3D scanning technology is more accessible than ever before, and no longer the preserve of industry alone. Deborah Mulhearn explores how the cultural sector is also getting in on the act – with fascinating and far-reaching benefits...
Imagine being able to print your own dinosaur… Well, actually, you can. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, United States, has pioneered 3D scanning technology in the cultural sector with its 3D printable dinosaur skull, which it offers as a free download. “This technology was impossible ten years ago, but now the possibilities are endless and very exciting,” says Mark Middlebrook, director of Big Object Base, a company that offers software, services and consulting for exploiting 3D objects, in Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
Middlebrook calls this the third industrial revolution – the combination of the digital and the physical world. “Its industrial applications mean entrepreneurs can move quickly and effectively from idea to prototype,” he explains, but it’s the cultural applications that most interest him. “I am passionate about the possibilities of 3D scanning for cultural heritage. The problem for cultural organisations is that there is very little funding, but we can to help them explore, investigate and understand the implications of 3D technology. It’s about productivity and creating 3D assets that are usable and relevant.” In industrial applications, the accuracy of size and shape is crucial to producing, for example, engine parts from 3D images. For museums, the colour and texture of an object are as important as its dimensions. 3D scanning technology can allow the viewer to move through a virtual 3D space such as a museum, stop at objects, zoom in and move around them. “Objects can now be scanned comparatively quickly to create an online reference library, with massive educational potential,” adds Middlebrook. “Museums need to find ways to capitalise on their assets, such as 3D licences for ‘loans’ and printing.”
There are different levels of sophistication when it comes to 3D scanning, depending on the amount of detail you want to capture. It can be done through a scanning technique known as photogrammetry, which is basically thousands of photographs joined together and triangulated to create a 3D likeness. “Once you have a 3D model, you can put it into an augmented reality scenario, or keep it in a simple online gallery,” explains Middlebrook. “Augmented reality also has massive potential for the future, and we are only just realising how significant it is. It’s telling that Apple’s latest acquisition is the German AR company Metaio.”
The first 3D scanning systems were developed in the 1980s for industrial use, where they were used for inspecting surfaces and taking measurements, for example in the aerospace industry. The video gaming sector and online retail companies were quick to see the potential of 3D modeling and scanning, but it has taken longer for the cultural heritage sector to take advantage of these emerging technologies. “A shift in methodology has meant that it is possible to create high resolution scans of cultural artefacts using consumer technologies,” says Ian Byrne, creative director of 3Dify, a 3D scanning company based in Brighton. “A number of technologies are also converging – 3D modeling software has become much more accessible, and 3D scanning, and 3D printing are now available to consumer and hobbyist markets.”
3D scanning captures a 360-degree image of a person or an object. The data is then processed to create a 3D model that can be used for viewing online, placing in augmented and virtual reality or games, or 3D printed. 3Dify made a splash in 2013 when they created Break the Mould, a 3D scanning arts installation housed inside a sculpture of a pregnant woman for the Brighton Digital Festival. Designed by Italian artist Emilia Telese, people could walk into the woman’s womb, get scanned and be turned into a small 3D printed figurine. This is the fun side of the technology, of course, but there is a serious aspect too, with important implications for the recording of inaccessible, at risk or fragile objects, buildings and landscapes.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), the organisation that confers world heritage site status, is using 3D technology to encourage remote access to world heritage sites. For example, viewers can make a virtual visit via their computers or phones to protected and inaccessible places such as the Caves of Lascaux in France. And the Lion of Mosul from the Mosul Museum in Iraq, for example, was destroyed by Islamic State, but is being digitally recreated using photogrammetry. “The amazing thing about this project is that the photographs have been crowdsourced from the public,” says Byrne. “The original artefacts may be lost, but they can still be seen online as faithful replicas.”
3Dify works with museums and cultural organisations that want to digitise their collections, both for cataloguing and for online access. “The cultural applications are opening it all up to a wider audience,” says Byrne. “It is also a question of accessibility. These collections are paid for by taxpayers, after all, who rarely if ever get to see them.”And, he adds, “it has massive advantages over 2D film, which is limited for recording and experiencing the ‘real’ world.” With 3D scanning you can create immersive experiences. “There is a huge move towards creating new content types for augmented and virtual reality,” he continues. “You can look all around you and place different elements within the scene, walk around and interact with them.”
You don’t need an expensive 3D printer or scanner for basic 3D model creation, says Byrne – 3D scanning can be done with digital cameras and phones. A good DSLR camera gives high-resolution textures, which are then wrapped around the 3D form. “You can get a decent 3D desktop printer for under £1000, and initiatives such as Ultimaker’s CREATE education project are helping put these in the hands of school children. ”
“And 3D printing will become more ubiquitous,” he points out. “Children take to it easily and are learning in the classroom with tangible objects, highly accurate replicas of things they would never see or hold. While it’s still fairly slow to print a 3D model on a desktop 3D printer – for example, it takes about an hour and a half to print a small figure – the technology is moving rapidly. When you consider where the technology will be when these children grow up, it makes for a very exciting prospect.”
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London was one of the first British museums to look at the potential of 3D online galleries. Staff have been working in collaboration with the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London (UCL) on digitising the museum’s archaeological artefacts since 2009. “The 3D imaging project evolved from research for the aerospace industry,” says Tonya Nelson, Head of Museums and Collections at UCL. “Being part of University College London meant we had the experts on hand to help us look at 3D from different perspectives. We were also lucky to have a sponsor, Arius 3D, a commercial producer of 3D imaging equipment, who was keen to explore the cultural applications of the technology.”
The 3D Petrie Museum website includes a catalogue of 30 zoomable 3D objects. The second phase of the website, launched in June, uses 3D to look at the history of objects starting from their use in Ancient Egypt to how they are housed in the museum today. “It’s much more than putting the objects online,” says Nelson “It’s a way of developing new audiences by engaging people with the stories behind the objects, and learning about the collections we hold.”
At the Horniman Museum in South London, 15 objects have been digitised and uploaded to Sketchfab, a website that shares 3D content for free. The museum’s model of a dodo is available as a free download to 3D print.“Our expertise came from digital designer Thomas Flynn, who volunteered to work with us. He explained what we could use and what we should avoid, for example, anything too shiny or metallic, too fluffy or too thin. We picked objects that we found visually engaging, and symbols of our museum that people would recognise, such as the walrus and the clocktower,” says Adrian Murphy, digital manager at the Horniman.
“This was a pilot project for us, and we took a simple approach,” says Murphy. “It’s a way of extending the inspiration our objects can bring. People can put them into computer games, for example.”
For museums, space is a perennial issue, and thousands of objects remain hidden away in stores, sometimes due to light sensitivity or their fragile state. “Having some 3D objects on display in our new anthropology galleries – being redeveloped at the moment – would be a great way to ‘see’ objects from the stores, some of which have never been on display. It’s been a learning curve for us, but you could say the Cloud’s the limit.”