Collections Cubed: Into the third dimension

Richard Urban, Florida State University, USA

Abstract

Recent advances in the technologies needed to digitize, publish, and print scientific and cultural heritage resources in three dimensions (3D) have placed them within reach of libraries, archives, and museums (LAM). Major collecting institutions are now exploring how 3D technologies can broaden access to their collections (Ioannides & Quak, 2014; Metallo & Rossi, 2011; Neely & Langer, 2013; Trendler & Street, 2014). Within the next five to ten years, it is expected that costs will decrease as quality increases, making these technologies even more broadly available (Basiliere et al., 2013; Johnson et al., 2015a, 2015b). As 3D digitization tools move from the research lab and into mainstream use, the LAM community is confronted with new challenges about how to best invest limited resources (Metallo & Rossi, 2011; Santos et al., 2014). This paper presents the results of early research to identify and track the diffusion of 3D technologies into the scientific and cultural heritage sector. The paper will present the preliminary results from the Collections Cubed Survey conducted from August to October 2015. This survey suggests that while 3D technologies have reached an inflection point in terms of availability and accessibility, libraries, archives, and museums are just beginning to understand the opportunities they offer. As with the emergence of other new technologies, LAM professionals are working to meet the challenges presented by quickly evolving hardware and software, lack of best practices, and a shortage of trained staff. Yet the opportunities to document collections for research, exhibition, and outreach are driving the exploration of these new technologies.

Keywords: 3D, digitization, virtual reality, printing, research

1. Introduction

Over the course of the last twenty years, best practices for digitizing two-dimensional (2D) resources emerged that improved quality, increased standardization, and enabled libraries, archives, and museums (LAM) to effectively and efficiently provide global audiences access to their collections (Lynch, 2005; Terras, 2009; Vollmar, Macklin, & Ford, 2010). Today, the technologies needed to digitize, publish, and print cultural heritage resources in three dimensions (3D) are increasingly within reach of memory institutions (Hess, 2015a, 2015b; Ioannides & Quak, 2014; Koller, Frischer, & Humphreys, 2010; Piazza, 2014; Robson et al., 2012). This paper seeks to lay the foundation for research that will explore how 3D digitization technologies are diffusing in LAM professional practices by reporting on the results of the Collections Cubed survey. For the purposes of this paper, we are primarily interested in technologies that allow for the direct capture and representation of cultural heritage resources in three dimensions (such as photogrammetry, laser, computed tomography (CT), and structured light scanning)(for a description of these technologies see the JISC infokit: Digital 3D Content (JISC, 2016). To a lesser extent, the survey is interested in how LAMs are providing access to the resulting representations through digital repositories and 3D printing resources. The survey was distributed using library, archive, and museum professional listservs and social media communities. The survey finds that 3D digitization activities are still in their infancy. Although the survey respondents are finding success in their projects, it is by overcoming the challenges of funding, navigating new technologies, and finding the right staff to complete 3D digitization workflows. At this time, survey respondents are operating on the edge of professional practice, but desire collaboration and guidance about best practices to ensure future success.

2. Research background

Interest in capturing and representing scientific cultural heritage objects in three dimensions is not a new phenomenon. We might trace our desire to improve access to rare sculptures or scientific specimens to the earliest plaster-casting technologies (Frederiksen & Marchand, 2010; McNutt, 1990). Scientific and cultural resources have played an important role in the research and development of new technologies for 3D capture and representation from the earliest days of cultural computing (Robson et al., 2012). Until recently, however, the costs of these technologies created barriers for their widespread adoption. Within the last few years, the combination of low-cost digital cameras, new laser-based scanning systems, and the computational power needed to process large quantities of capture data has brought them within reach (Hess, 2015b; Robson et al., 2012) (see figure 1).

Figure 1 Cost vs. availability of 3D technologies (Hess, 2015)

Figure 1: cost versus availability of 3D technologies (Hess, 2015)

The story so far has been told through individual research projects that have incrementally advanced the underlying technologies and applications, with little attention paid to the sociotechnical impacts that 3D technologies may bring to the larger digitization ecology. Yet the impact of 3D technologies is slowly beginning to shape how we provide access to 3D collections. Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Smithsonian Institution have initiated programs to incorporate both formal and informal 3D digitization activities to engage the public with their collections (Metallo & Rossi, 2011; Neely & Langer, 2013; Neely & Rozner, 2015; Roberts et al., 2015; Smithsonian Institution, 2013; Undeen, 2013). Scientists are increasingly turning to 3D digitization to document, research, and conduct public outreach for natural science collections (American Museum of Natural History, 2013; Cunningham et al., 2014). Costumes, ancient cuneiform, and repatriated Tlingit artifacts are demonstrating the value that 3D brings to LAM practice (Hollinger et al., 2013; Knapp, Wolff, & Lipson, 2008; Martin & Mauriello, 2013). Even in the archives, where materials are usually considered to be two-dimensional, professionals are exploring how emerging 3D technologies can change public access to and use of their collections (Trendler & Street, 2014). This interest in 3D digitization also coincides with a growing interest in makerspaces and 3D printing services in museums and public and academic libraries (Garcia et al., 2014; Groenendyk & Gallant, 2013; Hildreth, 2012; Johnson et al., 2015a, 2015b).

Outside of the United States, several large-scale projects have been undertaken to better understand the feasibility of these technologies, resulting in the addition of a large quantity of 3D representations to national and disciplinary digital repositories and the Europeana aggregation (D’Andrea & Fernie, 2013; D’Andrea et al., 2012; Masci et al., 2012). These projects have also resulted in an emerging set of best practices and case studies about how 3D technologies are being used to document large- and small-scale cultural heritage resources (3D-ICONS, 2014; JISC, 2016; Martinez et al., 2012). Despite this promise and “…considerable efforts in the past decades, 3D documentation of material culture is not applied as widely as one would expect” (Boochs et al., 2014). As an example, while the quantity of “physical object” resources in the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) doubled between 2013 and 2014, this growth mostly consisted of 2D photography of 3D objects. Few, if any, digital 3D models are directly available via the DPLA (Abbott & Rudersdorf, 2015; Rudersdorf, 2016). Yet, as 3D technologies become more accessible, this and many other issues will need to be resolved.

3. Method

The Collections Cubed survey was created using the Qualtrics survey platform. It was broadly distributed beginning in August 2015 to library, archive, and museum listservs primarily focusing on North America (e.g., archivists, LITA 3D, MCN-L, Museum-L). The invitation to the survey was also distributed via various social media platforms and museum affiliated groups (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.). The survey questions included general background information about the size of invitations and proceeded into more detailed questions about 3D digitization activities (the survey instrument can be viewed at http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/islandora/object/fsu:277461).

4. Results

Although the survey received attention from at least one hundred participants (based on Qualtrics analytics), only forty-eight submitted partial replies to the survey. The survey requested more detailed information (technical specifications, etc.), resulting in only 25 percent of respondents fully completing the survey (n=27). Of those who began the survey, the majority of responses came from museums (n=22), followed by libraries (n=12) and archives (n=9) (figure 2). The survey also attracted the attention of several research labs, exhibition producers, and vendors providing 3D digitization services.

Figure 2: Type of Institution (n=48)

Figure 2: type of institution (n=48)

For each of these types, respondents were asked to further clarify the type of institution. For libraries and archives, respondents came mostly from academic and special collections environments. Most of the museum respondents (n=9) came from natural history, art, and archaeology collections. Interestingly, respondents largely came from smaller organizations in terms of both staff size and budget. More than half of responses came from organizations with budgets less than $250,000 and fewer than twenty-five full-time staff members (figures 3a and 3b).

Figure 3a: Organization Staff (n=38)

Figure 3a: organization staff (n=38)

Figure 3b: Organization Budget (n=36)

Figure 3b: organization budget (n=36)

The respondents described a wide range of collection types, including architecture, ethnographic materials, historic costumes, osteological collections, paleontological specimens, and zoological specimens. When asked about the focus of their 3D digitization efforts, respondents indicate that naturefacts (natural science specimens, fossils, etc.) represent the largest number of objects to be digitized in 3D (figure 4).

Figure 4: Focus of 3D digitization efforts (n=48)

Figure 4: focus of 3D digitization efforts (n=48)

According to these respondents, research and documentation activities are the primary motivation for their 3D digitization efforts. Especially for natural science specimens, 3D representations allows remote researchers to study artifacts in ways that are not possible using 2D surrogates. 3D representations can be used to advance morphological studies to identify new species and compare type specimens to other collections. Conservation concerns also are driving 3D projects. For historic costume collections a 3D representations can provide researchers a closer view than is possible in traditional exhibition settings. A 3D model can also be manipulated and animated in ways that would damage fragile textiles (Martin & Mauriello, 2013). For natural science specimens, the use of computed tomography (CT) scanning means that researchers can non-destructively study internal structures (iDigBio, 2015). This also has the benefit of saving time and labor by allowing scans to be completed without removing plaster jackets or other containers. For extraordinarily small specimens, the ability to scale to larger sizes can also change the way research is conducted.

Many projects also noted the education and outreach function of 3D representations; however, these uses are often an extension of the primary research activities. Respondents use 3D digitization to incorporate manipulable 3D representations alongside traditional exhibition displays in order to provide the public new kinds of engagement with collections. Likewise, 3D models can be included as pedagogical resources in educational programming. In this survey, respondents did not provide specific examples of educational programming; however, several examples will be discussed below. At this time, most projects (taken from twenty-two free-text responses) are funded via soft money from state, federal, or foundation grant sources. At least two projects indicated that 3D digitization is supported through internal operating expenses and at least one project is partially funded through a commercial partnership.

Digitization methods

Respondents were asked a series of questions about what methods, software, and dissemination platforms they used to provide access to various audiences. Seventy-five percent of respondents (n=21) indicated that photogrammetry is a method used to digitize collections. This may be in part because current photogrammetry algorithms can take advantage of readily available images from DSLR cameras (Robson et al., 2012). This makes photogrammetry an easy onramp to 3D digitization, because projects may already have the necessary equipment available. Because the invitation focused on the digitization of collections rather than sites and structures, the use of short-range surface scanning and structured light scanning are well represented here. Included in the “other” category is the use of infinite focus microscopy and confocal microscopy. We don’t usually think about archival collections when we talk about 3D digitization; however, one project is demonstrating that archives should be part of this conversation by converting 2D architectural plans into 3D models that can be viewed online and also printed (Trendler & Street, 2014).

Figure 5: Method of 3D Capture (n=28)

Figure 5: method of 3D capture (n=28)

The survey provided respondents with a list of known software used to creating and manipulating 3D models. From this list, MeshLab (http://meshlab.sourceforge.net/) and Blender (https://www.blender.org/) are the most commonly used software packages (notably both of these are freely available open-source projects). This is followed by several leading commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) 3D modeling software packages: AutoDesk (http://www.autodesk.com/, including AutoCAD and Maya) and Rhinoceros (https://www.rhino3d.com/). “Other” was the largest category selected by respondents and included several mentions of packages not on the provided list: for example, 3D Systems GeoMagic (http://www.geomagic.com/en/), Agisoft (http://www.agisoft.com/), Amira (http://www.fei.com/software/amira-3d-for-life-sciences/), and PixoLogic ZBrush (https://pixologic.com/).

Figure 6: Software (n=28)

Figure 6: software (n=28)

Projects use a wide variety of file formats to store and disseminate 3D representations. Like 2D digitization workflows, some of these formats are better for high-quality and long-term storage, while others are optimized for distribution via the Web (projects also mentioned the use of WebGL (https://www.khronos.org/webgl/) and Quicktime Virtual Reality (QTVR) as other dissemination formats). Again, respondents contributed a large selection of additional file formats, many associated with the software discussed above (e.g., ZTL file formats specific to ZBrush). At least one project mentioned the use of the COLLADA (.dae) format (https://www.khronos.org/collada/), which is designed to function as an interchange format between different types of 3D modeling software.

Figure 7: File formats (n=28)

Figure 7: file formats (n=28)

When asked about the workflows for their 3D digitization projects, several respondents noted that their projects are “in their infancy” and that they are continuing to develop their internal best practices. Because a number of the respondents indicated that they were academic research units, often a staff member serves as a project manager, while undergraduate and graduate students conduct scans, process capture data, and create other versions for distribution. Respondents also indicated that quality standards expectations are often developed on a project-by-project basis, especially when a digitization project is addressing a specific set of research questions. Several respondents indicated that their response was cursory (given the space and time available in a survey) and that additional effort would be required to fully explain their processes).

Access to 3D resources

Eighty percent of respondents (n=16) are making 3D representations available to the public via the Internet. Responses from the “other” category listed here indicated that respondents have plans to make models available or do not make models available currently. In some cases, these respondents indicated a partnership with institutional repositories to store models (which may be limited to on-campus access).

Figure 8: Access to 3D Resources (n=20)

Figure 8: access to 3D resources (n=20)

It is at this point in the survey that responses dropped off significantly. Some respondents hinted that internal discussions were still in progress about how best to share 3D resources their organizations are creating. Others noted that most requests came directly from researchers and that ad hoc approaches to meeting those requests were in place. Projects also mentioned using existing content platforms, such as ContentDM, Fedora, or basic content management systems. Respondents also indicated that they use OpenGL, both off the shelf or customized for their application to provide online access. The majority of projects are using locally defined metadata schema to describe their 3D resources, with the remainder of projects using Darwin Core, Dublin Core, or VRACore. Other responses indicated that respondents were unaware of what metadata standards were being used.

Figure 9: Metadata schema (n=14)

Figure 9: metadata schema (n=14)

When sharing 3D resources, Creative Commons licenses are the most popular choice. However, a significant number of projects (n=6) still reserve all rights to these resources. This may be due to the type of organization that is doing the sharing, or it may be that institutions are still unsure about what the implications are for 3D materials. The fact that Creative Commons licenses dominate suggests that some of the attitude changes that have developed for 2D digital resources will carry forward for 3D resources.

Figure 10: Intellectual Property licensing (n=16)

Figure 10: intellectual property licensing (n=16)

Although the primary interest of this survey was to learn about digitization activities, we were also interested in how these collections are being used. If an organization owned a 3D printer, access was mostly restricted to internal audiences. Again, given that many of these respondents are oriented towards research functions, this seems appropriate (figure 11). The majority of respondents (n=11) have access to a MakerBot printer (http://www.makerbot.com/), with a smaller number of organizations using a variety of other brands. In all but one case, organizations are using plastic extrusion printers. The one exception is an institution with access to a Zcorp powder-based printer (now part of 3D Systems (http://www.3dsystems.com)).

Figure 11: Access to 3D Printers (n=15)

Figure 11: access to 3D printers (n=15)

Respondents emphasized the nascent nature of 3D digitization projects when asked about how these efforts are being evaluated. Most respondents to a free-text field indicated that they did not have an evaluation plan in place. Several projects indicated that they track Web analytics to understand use of 3D resources posted online. Only one respondent indicated that they conduct “pilot studies in use of specimen-based learning tools and apps in classrooms with diverse audiences.” Projects indicated a number of challenges in undertaking a 3D digitization program. Like most complex projects, sustainable and consistent funding is still problematic for 3D projects. Finding institutional support (both in terms of funding and commitment) is also problematic, as the value of 3D digitization is still not well understood. Although these technologies are increasingly less expensive and produce higher-quality results than before, respondents noted that they still suffer from growing pains. Equipment and software can be unreliable. They lack infrastructures needed to store, process, and disseminate the large files that are generated. And most important, the struggle to find staff with the right set of skills needed to operate equipment and 3D modeling software. Projects with some funding can turn to outside vendors to provide 3D digitization services; however, staffing may prove to be one of the major bottlenecks for the growth of 3D activities. In their attempt to address these issues, projects indicate that there are few “consistent sources” of information about 3D digitization activities. Respondents rely on their own knowledge of community digitization practices through listservs, blogs, and importantly conference activities. Yet several respondents indicated that knowledge about 3D digitization is the result of their own research into best practices.

5. Limitations

This survey was successful at attracting responses from a range of institutions across libraries, archives, and museums. However, within each of those institution types there are limitations. Strong responses came mostly from natural science, archaeology, and a few cultural collections. From the responses, it seems that few if any art or historical museums replied to the survey. At this time, it is unclear whether this is an indication that such museums are not engaged in systematic 3D digitization activities or that the survey failed to reach the right people. Without an available census of 3D digitization projects, it is unclear how representative the responses to this survey are. In response to questions about workflows and procedures, respondents also indicated that there was insufficient time or space to fully describe current practices. We hope that this can be addressed by future research that can take a closer look at the range of practices currently being used by digitization projects.

6. In conversation

After the Collections Cubed survey was put into the field, the author learned of a complementary study conducted by Hess (2015a) in 2013. Hess’ survey focused more on individual respondents (rather than the organizational focus of the Collections Cubed survey) and included additional demographic data about these individuals. While there is likely some overlap between the two samples, Hess’ participants offer an expanded view of 3D digitization outside of the United States. Hess’ survey received forty-five responses, two-thirds of which were located in the United Kingdom or Europe, with a smaller number from the United States. The respondents in this survey trended toward researchers and graduate students in archaeology and/or computer sciences and engineering related to 3D imaging. Like for the Collections Cubed respondents, the primary motivation for these professionals is to create digital surrogates of cultural resources, with an emphasis on their use for research and scientific documentation with an eye toward conservation concerns. However, a large number of respondents were also interested in using 3D digital resources for outreach activities. Hess’ (2015a) respondents also had the opportunity to indicate what they thought were the most important outcomes of a 3D digitization project:

  • Easy viewing and navigation without specialized software
  • The possibility to conduct accurate measurements on a 3D digital surrogate of the surface or the volume and for the creation of cross-sections and profiles
  • Most important, a high-resolution output (at least according to specification)

Participants in Hess’ (2015a) survey also identified three main challenges to the adoption of 3D technologies:

  1. Current cost of the equipment
  2. Cost to pay specialist technicians to provide staff training
  3. Problems with long-term data sustainability

Furthermore, respondents found that a major challenge was the broad set of technical specifications for 3D sensors, yet a lack of “common comparison standards for manufacturer-independent testing of sensors” and a lack of “suitable workflow pipelines” that led to unpredictable outcomes. This unpredictability made it more difficult to “harmonize 3D with strategic priorities” and made long-term sustainability unclear (Hess, 2015a). These respondents also indicated that the likelihood that they would integrate 3D into their practices would increase if there were better standardization of file formats for long-term preservation and “best practice guidelines for imaging objects” (Hess, 2015a).

7. Discussion

The results of this survey indicate that members of the scientific and cultural heritage community have an interest and appreciation for the possibilities that 3D digitization holds for making our collections accessible in new ways. Yet it is clear from both this survey and Hess (2015a) that 3D digitization is still in its infancy. In many ways, the state of 3D technologies is not dissimilar to what we have seen before as 2D digitization emerged. What made earlier 2D digitization efforts possible is a coalescence of sociotechnical forces: the decrease in costs of 2D scanning equipment and digital storage, increasing network speeds, the emergence of a community of practice that created best practices for high-quality digital collections, and the support of public and private funding agencies. The integration of these technologies into the core functions of cultural heritage organizations helped LAMs to reimagine their roles within society and professional practice (Cox & Rasmussen, 1997; Dalbello, 2009; Marty, 2007, 2008; Parry, 2007; Terras, 2015). Because 3D technologies are just beginning to be adopted by LAMs and the public, now is the time to begin research that tracks how 3D technologies are being used to meet institutional missions, professional, personal, and educational goals. The emergence of 3D digitization technologies represents an important opportunity to study and understand how new technologies diffuse into LAM practice. While larger market forces continue to drive the availability of 3D technologies, now is also the time to begin to collaboratively shape what 3D digitization looks like in the future (Basiliere, 2014; Hess, 2015b; Johnson, 2015a, 2015b). Lessons learned from the emergence of 2D digitization can be important guides to understanding the potential impact of 3D technologies. We hope that this survey will serve as a foundation for additional research that takes a more in-depth look at what is happening in current 3D digitization projects in the United States.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank all of the participants in the 2015 Collections Cubed survey for their time and effort in completing the survey.

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Cite as:
Urban, Richard. "Collections Cubed: Into the third dimension." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 15, 2016. Consulted .
http://mw2016.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/collections-cubed-into-the-third-dimension/