For the past eleven weeks I’ve had the opportunity to intern with the Digital Imaging Unit, working on a project to evaluate the potential of establishing a 3D digitisation service within the department. “3D digitisation” in this sense encompasses everything from the initial production of digital models – using suitable items from across the University Collections – to online display, preservation of 3D data, and 3D printing. The project was roughly organised into three phases: research, testing, and implementation.
Although I worked primarily with Susan Pettigrew (Photographer, DIU) and Mike Boyd (uCreate Manager) I always felt supported by the other Library & University Collections staff; everyone I had the chance to speak to was eager to discuss their own work on top of contributing to the project.
Phase 1: Research
In Phase 1, I carried out user research with curators and academics across the University Collections to assess the demand for a 3D service and decide which collections were suitable for 3D digitisation (aka NOT objects which are reflective, transparent, deeply recessed, or have moving parts). As I have volunteered at the Centre for Research Collections since 2020, I was already familiar with many of the collections we discussed, but for this project I focussed more specifically on object morphology and how any 3D models produced could increase public and academic (teaching and research) engagement with the CRC.
I also carried out external research, looking at how 3D technologies are being used by other educational and heritage institutions. It would probably be a stretch to call 3D the “Wild West” of the digital imaging world but, for now at least, there are no agreed standards for capture, preservation, or sharing of data. There are however many individuals from heritage institutions who have been experimenting with 3D digitisation for far longer than me and I had some fantastic opportunities to chat with them about what works and what doesn’t.
Phase 2: Testing
In this phase I got the opportunity to go onsite for one week and work in the DIU photography studio with Susan, where we aimed to capture at least three objects using photogrammetry and structured light scanning. Photogrammetry is the process of converting overlapping 2D images into a textured 3D mesh of an object or space, using traditional 2D photography equipment and computer-based processing software. In comparison, SLS uses a handheld scanner to project light patterns onto an object and then captures this data to directly produce a 3D mesh – it’s a more geometrically accurate method but it produces subpar textures. I did this scanning with an Einscan 2X Pro provided by the uCreate studio.
I was trained beforehand in safe collections handling and use of the photography equipment: up until that point I’d never handled a DSLR camera in my life and yet by the third day I was able to set up the studio and do the captures myself. The efficiency of this training definitely contributed to our managing to capture an extra object that week, a particularly tricky violin head from MIMEd which had lots of reflections and dark, recessed areas.
Outside of this week I also had a quick, easy equipment induction in the uCreate studio which afforded me the freedom to go off and experiment with 3D technology like LIDAR scanners, 3D printing, and virtual reality headsets.
Phase 3: Implementation
For this final phase, I produced a report summarising my research and recommending ways the Digital Library could support the implementation of a 3D service in the DIU going forward. I also processed the data we’d captured in the studio to produce a few 3D models which are now on the University’s Sketchfab page. These include a life mask bust of the composer Felix Mendelssohn and an object associated with the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, the fossilised rain drops, (tying in nicely with the Lyell Notebooks digitisation project the DIU is currently undertaking!). You can see the 3D models here.
Susan and Mike were a huge help throughout this project, nudging me in useful directions with my research and always happy to explain how to use hardware and software that I’d not encountered before. However, I was also afforded a lot of trust and independence during the internship to research whichever avenues I thought best and got the chance to develop technical skills that I’ll undoubtably be using in the next few years as I graduate from my History and Archaeology MA.
As someone who had some intermittent experience using 3D technologies pre-internship, I found that following the process from research to implementation gave me a real appreciation for how involved a high-quality 3D service would need to be. But I also believe it’s an achievable service, which could benefit students, researchers, academics, and the public alike. This can range from producing digital and physical teaching aides, to facilitating research into collections material that’s too delicate to study physically. In particular, over the past year it’s become apparent that collections need to be more accessible to users who can’t physically access the CRC and require more than still images and written descriptions to study an object. It’s great to see the Library being so proactive about investigating such a service, especially as other heritage institutions are increasingly carrying out their own 3D digitisation projects, and groups like the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) 3D community are getting closer to agreeing standards for 3D data sharing.
Written by Connor Wimblett
University’s Open.Ed Sketchfab: https://sketchfab.com/openededinburgh
More information on the IIIF 3D community: https://iiif.io/community/groups/3d/
Read the VOiCE blog, a product of the CRC volunteering I mentioned at the top of this post: https://voiceblog1.wordpress.com/