How ready is 3D for delivering museum services?

Digital Media
April 17, 2013

Some reflections from people who are using 3D for real now in museums. They are from two great pre-conference workshops at Museums and the Web 2013 in Portland. 

As it stands right now there are a number of issues and service delivery challenges for managers looking to embed 3D features permanently into their museum services.  Useable 3D technology exists in one form or another now, that can do amazing things that can be used to build great services, but some care is needed to scope this work.

What was clear from the discussions in these sessions was museum staff using 3D need to be strategic in their long term policy in order to build stable and sustainable platforms but also, to test the possibilities available right now, they will also have to make short-term tactical decisions on using unproven technology.  

This is really because 3D is emerging and as such likely to be disruptive. It is however inevitably not possible to predict all the ways it will change people and social activity.  It is risky to invest too much yet, but equally important to be playfully creative to tease out its real strengths for museums in small pilots and prototypes. Given it is not easy for any one organisation to do multiple test cases, sharing 3D practise will be important.


There are many elements to consider in 3D, both for what it theoretically offers and how that can be pragmatically delivered right now and in the immediate future. At the very least, the issues include: creation/capture, processing and manipulation, storage and archiving, presentation and interaction with users, and many other subtle aspects and sub-aspects.

Each of the various elements are at different levels of availaibility and/or development as a business or service tool.  It is possible to build some things now, but there is no standard stable long-term solution for 3D yet, and it is unlikely to happen for some time.

Workshop #1
Using Web 3D for Exhibit Design, Promotion, and Installation

Ross McKegney of Verold

Ross McKegney, Verold, Canada
Ross McKegney is from Verold, a company that allows artists to upload and collaborate on their 3D assets and this workshop was about delivering 3D on the web. As an opening point, Ross was upfront about his business interests, but gave a fair overview of the technology in general terms. He explored how web-delivered 3D can be used by museums.
As much of the discussion on 3D in museums tends to be about the scanning or production of 3D models, it was useful to hear about the possibilities for actually delivering 3D on the web.
It was also refreshing to hear Ross recognise some of the challenges for museums that 3D technology can cause when developing services.
Notable he made the point that there is a tension as a technologist between harnessing new technologies to improve things, compared with delivering original incredible experiences. He gave an example of a sprint finish at a cycle race he had attended and how the live experience was something that 3d and augmented reality would not improve. Even though they might add other dimensions, you had to be there to experience the intensity of a unique and dramatic sporting moment. This he compared to not allowing AR and other 3D-related technologies to detract from museum experiences that involve being with great objects simply for what they are.

Simplified options for 3D display technologies

Ross McKegney of Verold discusses the 3D delivery stack

Ross McKegney highlighting the technology stack for web 3D
Ross reviewed some basic options for rendering 3D on the web and how far it is developed in reality. These can be considered as simplistic types.
Pseudo-3d using photostitching such as Microsoft’s Photosynth is easy to use and there are many products on the web to deliver a 3d visualisation in this way. This is used extensively  by estate agents, and has been used by early Museum 3D examples. However they almost all require some form of plugin and may be based on things like java and Flash. 
3d engines such as the Unity platform do offer true 3D environment and models and to add in more functionality as people explore within them, but again the web presentation is also based on Flash.
Using WebGL which is Javascript gives the web developer to gain direct access to the graphics card and which is the current best hope for an open web 3D standard.


Ross described WebGL explaining how  it works by allowing javascript libraries to directly control a computer’s graphics card. This is a powerful way to achieve true 3D over the web that html alone cannot match for performance. WebGL is the equivalent of a game rendering engine and can be  used to manipulate 3D models or make 3D visualisations of data.
However, as Ross pointed out WebGL is not universally supported yet. It works with Chrome, Android,  Firefox and Safari, but not on iOS, so not on iPhones or iPads nor Internet Explorer yet, altough this is expected in IE11.
This highlights one of the core tech issues surrounding 3D (and any emerging technology) which is that platforms are formed from a mixture of good intentions (WebGL is designed as an open source platform just as HTML was many years ago) with commercial manoeuvering. For example Apple have spent a long time choking Flash out of the mobile market as a direct competitor to its iStore and apps business model.

Consider what platform you are investing 

The platform for 3D on web and mobile is not established, nor necessarily going to be stable any time soon. It will depend on universal uptake of WebGL across multiple browsers devices AND  mobile device operating systems.
A key point is that when you are considering 3D technology you need to consider timing. The ideal 3D technology may not become established with the lifespan of project, in which case you may have to use something that you know will not last, but delivers a service for now.
This creates a need to plan for future migration and should steer the choices you make.  For example, now if you want you use 3d on a mobile, it’s likely only to work via some sort of App. Apple does not support WebGL yet. This may not port to WebGL, but the images used should be kept, as they might be used to create a 3D model later.
Ross’ view is that WebGL will come, but not in time for curren projects.

3D modelling for exhibition prototyping

Ross looked at the design phase and how exhibition designers can use simple tools such as the free SketchUp (originally a Google product) to create mock ups for exhibitions and share them with colleagues online.  This can be used to mock up interiors and simple models using primitive 3D shapes like cuboids as well as import externally produced 3D models from other software.

Creating 3D models from physical objects using 123D Catch

LeeAnn Manon from Autodesk spoke briefly their reality capture software 123D Catch.  She started by discussing two common ways to capture 3D models – Laser scanning versus photogrammetry.
123D Catch uses photogrammetry. This uses photos to create the 3d model, but it does not just stitch images together to form a pseudo-3D interactive panorama. Catch works by looking at the object AND the background to find out the points of interest, which it then uses to build an object mesh and a surface rendering texture.
Another practically handy feature is that by uploading to the 123D community, you can download mesh files in .OBJ format to use in other software.
Ross discussed how images from 123D Catch usually need cleaning and/or file translation. He suggested Meshlab for converting object formats and Meshmixer for cleaning up scans.
.OBJ is a standard 3D model file format
.STL files are meant for 3D printers
Ross described the services Verold provide which include being able to upload a 3D object to the Verold site and have an embeddable widget to display it in WebGL. Verold offer other development services.
This was a very useful and honest review of the current options available for web 3D.

Workshop #2
The Gallery in Your Hands: 3D Scanning & Printing 

MakerBot Replicator

The MakerBot Replicator

This session was co-organised by Miriam Langer of New Mexico Highlands University and Liz Neely from the Art Institute of Chicago, Portland Art Museum’s Director of Education & Public Programs Michael Murawski and Kristin Bayans, Senior Educator at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

It was a great hands-on session showing how to produce 3D opbjects from real objects with easily accessible and relatively cheap technology.. It covered: using 123D Catch to get 3D models from objects (the practical end of what was discussed in the earlier workshop), using a Microsoft Kinect to scan in models using its in built infra-red, using Meshmaker to clean up scanned models, printing on the MakerBot Replicator and lots more. 

The session raised a number of challenges that face practitioners, but the organisers held an admirably pioneering attitude of just getting stuck in and testing out the possibilities. Action learning as a means to understand technological possibility – fantastic!

Scanning objects using 123D Catch in practise

Michael Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum

Michael Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs leads attendees on a gallery object-scanning expedition in Portland Art Museum

One of three strands in the workshop was using 123D Catch for real.  Armed with a simple, but effective checklist objects were scanned using 123D on iPhones and iPads.

Simple tips for 3D scanning

Simple checklist for happy scanning. Excuse the creases. It’s been used for real. 

I scanned this wooden sculpture through its glass case and it is a good example of the things to consider in practise. You can see the reflections and glare of the case so it was interesting to see if the software could cope with that.

Carved wooden lion-dog figure in Portland Art Museum

Carved wooden lion-dog type figure (in a glass case)

Below are three images of the 3D model created from this…

3D modelds of carved wooden lion-dog figure in Portland Art Museum

Three views of the 123D Catch generated 3D model – The full model can be viewed and the .obj file downloaded here:

The first thing to note is that the scanned model although not perfect, is surprisingly good, considering it was taken through a shiny case with no lighting control available.

I suspect that if asked many people would immediately say this scan is no good. I disagree.

It would clearly not be acceptable as a collection system master model. Even in this totally unedited state it could quite easily be useable as a 3d “snapshot”.  For example it would be good enough to allow video conferenced discussion by conservators in different countries. It could also be imported in Google Sketch Up as it is as an object within a rough-draft exhibition design. 

It is only by trying out these technologies that these possibilities become apparent, so PLAY!

Creating an object model mesh with a Kinect

The second strand of the workshop was scanning with a Kinect using the software ReconstructMe.

Mario demonstrating using a Kinnect to scan objects to 3D

Mariano Ulibarri demonstrates using Kinect to scan an attendee

Microsoft’s Kinect is an awesome piece of technology. It’s Infrared sensors can be used to do depth of field scanning. Here a volunteer gets scanned. The office swivel chair is to allow her to revolve slowly in front of the Kinect!

The scans produced are not faultless, but just like those done with 123D Catch, they are very good for such simple and cheap kit. Happily both types can be cleaned up using free tools. Here is a scan of myself showing the problem areas. This is in MeshMixer.

Cleaning an OBJ 3D model in MeshMixer

MeshMixer has built-in tools to help identify gaps in the mesh and can auto-fix these.

MeshMixer is also by AutodDesk and is free to download.

Printing using the AutoBot Replicator

The third strand of the workshop was using a 3D printer itself.

Heated print bed on a MakerBot Replicator

Printing the base layer of a 3D print on the AutoBot Replicator

The printing focus of the workshop looked at the popular MakerBot printer.  This uses heated plastic as a raw printing medium and recreates objects from the mesh files by repeatedly plotting layers of hot liquid plastic on top of each other to form a matrix.

3D printing is a fairly tempremental process. It uses hot molten plastic and has to run for a long time during which it should not be left unattended.

Two common type of plastic were discussed.

ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) a tough plastic similar to the material Lego is made from

PLA (Polylactic Acid) plastic made from plant materials and more environmentally friendly, but brittler and not suitable for robust models that may have to endure tension stress

The software that creates the print also has settings to create internal support struts, which are built up as a mesh of open buttresses.

3D printed model showing internal mesh support

3D print cross-section showing internal strengthening mesh


The workshop ended with a discussion of the implications for this entry-level technology. It was clear that people could see lots of potential for developing services, but that these might not be what you’d imagine. 3D modelling could be used  for printing copies, sharing information, avoiding handling, creating conservation mounts, engaging via hands  learning activities and many other things.

During the discussion the implications for copyright were also raised. If you can copy something in 3D, what does that mean?  Lots of food for thought


This was a great workshop and a thorough practical introduction to what can be done at the current time with simple tools. These are not hi-resolution, high-end tools, but they still show the enormous possibilities of 3D which are just beginning to become easily attainable.

Coupled with the workshop on using web 3D above, this was an amazingly useful day. 


Handy links

Verold – Ross’ company that offers WebGL services

123D – download various free 3D tools including Catch

ReconstructMe – the software used with the Kinect to get 3D models

MakerBot – the makers of the printer we usd

MeshMixer – for cleaning object models

AgiSoft PhotoScan

About the author

Digital Media
April 17, 2013

Digital Content Delivery Manager at the V&A. Information scientist at work and hacky maker of strange things out of it.

More from Andrew Lewis
3 comments so far, view or add yours


All Pioneers spent a lot of time cleaning the mud and manure off their boots-such is 3D printing-every step is an advancement.

Hi. Yes I agree. You have to try this stuff to understand it. The really unexpected revelations of any technlogy come from understanding its characteristics without starting with a purpose or name in mind. A classic example of this is to ask someone what they can do with a brick. Most people will say build a house. But a brick is small rectangular cuboid with rough faces, possibly an indent, quite dense and made of a fairly weak bright orangey-red coloured material. These characteristics it also makes a great sanding block, doorstop, mallet, water-saver in a toilet cistern, paint pigment when ground etc. This is the same with 3D and any other tech. Study them and new facets emerge :)

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