One of the essential qualities of 3D technology that I most love is its versatility. We’ve already found a multitude of uses for it. And with all the creative people on the planet, we will continue to find more unique, whimsical, pioneering ways to exercise it. 3D technology really is a blank sheet, a flashpoint from which we can conceive of projects as spectacular as the tools themselves. Best of all, just as paint and canvas have not met their limit, I don’t think 3D will either. That’s a status that many new, openly available technologies and toys can’t claim, as so many are meant for specific uses. But 3D is meant simply to inspire.
So while we know that 3D is being utilized for professional and at-home prototyping, manufacturing, aerospace, automotive, movie special effects and consumer product design, there are myriad, less-publicized applications changing not only products, but they are altering the very ways we discover our world and culture. One such area is in historical and archaeological applications, where it’s reshaping the way academics and public alike learn about, record and narrate history.
Democratizing Science The Idaho Virtualization Lab (IVL), a research unit of the Idaho Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University, isn’t just 3D scanning animal fossil specimens to put them into a vault. (And they’ve scanned a lot, including the fossil remains of birds, walruses, sea lions, otters, bear, camels, and the real prize–a prehistoric helicorpion.) Dr. Herb Maschner and his team are putting those scans online in an effort to democratize science, so that anyone, anywhere can study them whenever they want. Museums can create 3D printed copies of these skeletons, and researchers can easily access and share these detailed 3D models for teaching purposes and exploration. IVL is eliminating barriers, and demystifying and opening up an area that has long been difficult to access.
Idaho Virtualization Laboratory’s projects include the 3D Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP) in addition to the Virtual Museum of Idaho, Virtual Museum of the Arctic, and Whales of the World, all of which are accessed by archaeologists, teachers and researchers at IVL’s website. Says one researcher, “VZAP has been a real help training students in basic sorting and identification of faunal specimens.”
Preserving Ancient Culture Drs. Travis Doering and Lori Collins at the University of South Florida are changing the way field archaeology is done, and how the artifacts they study are used in classrooms.
They’re using 3D scanning to capture every inch of invaluable artifacts without the need to dig, remove or destroy anything. Their work also enables students to virtually visit sites and examine artifacts from continents away.
The team uses laser scanners and photographic techniques to record, analyze, preserve, and protect important monuments in locations like La Venta in Tobasco, Mexico. La Venta is a pre-Columbian civic-ceremonial center that dates to around 900 to 400 BC and is populated by massive stone heads and monolithic stone objects that would be impossible to capture and archive any other way. But Doering and Collins are capturing the objects in the form of 3D data, which will never erode, never break and never succumb to elements. In a sense, they make these valuable artifacts last forever.
Touching the Past How can we give museum visitors a physical experience beyond just viewing artifacts from afar? What about visually impaired visitors for whom, without touch, the museum may be no different than reading a book? These questions, were at the tip of Christopher Dean’s mind when he and his company, Touch & Discover Systems, developed the Probos system for the UK’s Manchester Museum. Along with software by Virtalis, a world-leading virtual reality and advanced visualization company, Probos uses the Geomagic Sensable Phantom haptic device to provide tactile (touch) and kinesthetic (motion) feedback to museum visitors. Put simply: visitors can touch digital three-dimensional versions of the amazing artifacts that are typically stuck behind thick glass and dusty velvet ropes. The museum, in turn, can enliven the stories behind artifacts that are often the most fragile.
It’s one thing to hear about the painstaking process and craftsmanship of an ancient vase. But what if you could touch the engravings and feel the hand-worked shape? This is how you form a connection; this process of touch and discover is exactly what Probos enables you to do. Museum visitors simply move a handheld stylus to feel the contours, textures and weight of artifacts that date as far back as 4000 BC. Probos deepens the experience by providing important audio elements, so visitors can hear the dull hum of a broken ceramic versus the harmonic ring produced by a high-fired ceramic.
The Future of History There’s more 3D on the way at museums, archaeological sites and historical archives around the world, from 3D printing artifacts so Brooklyn Museum visitors can touch them to using 3D scans to rebuild demolished cultural treasures in Afghanistan.
3D is improving our lives through more than just product improvements; it’s helping us restore what’s been lost and helping us gain a greater appreciation for what came before. Now, with the help of 3D we can more clearly see where we’ve been so that we might have a brighter view of what’s to come.
(Written with Josh O’Dell)