These New 3D Models Put the Smithsonian’s Most Renowned Items in Your Hands

Models of the Wright Flyer, the Wooly Mammoth and 19 other items are available in a new web-based viewer and printable in 3D

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The Wright Flyer, the legendary aircraft built by the Wright Brothers and sent skyward over Kitty Hawk in 1903, was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1948. Since then, it’s been on public display nearly continuously.

Of course, visitors aren’t allowed to touch the plane, and educators teaching lessons on the Flyer have had to use models to give students the chance to handle it and see it from different positions. Engineers and historians have faced similar limitations, unable to climb inside to examine its inner machinery or take out a tape measure to assess its specs.

Now, though, anyone with an internet connection can handle a virtual 3D version of the Flyer and print a replica at any scale. The 3D model viewer above, along with 20 other 3D models released today as part of the Digitization Program Office‘s Smithsonian X 3D Conference, is the result of years of labor by Vince Rossi, Adam Metallo and other staff in the Digitization Office. As they continue their work of digitally scanning as many of the Smithsonian’s 137 million artifacts as possible, the Smithsonian X 3D Explorer is the means by which they’ll take this valuable 3D data public.

“For a while, we were able to create these incredible, high-resolution 3D models, but in terms of public access to the data, we were really limited,” says Rossi. “In developing these tools, we’re able to share our work with the world.”

Each model is a simplified version of the “point cloud“—the thousands of points that make up the contours of an item’s surface—that they collect using 3D scanning tools. Because the actual point cloud is far too large in size to make available in a web browser, some digital compression is necessary.

“If you play any video game, you’re looking at a polygonal model, and that’s also what you’re looking at in the viewer,” Rossi says. In essence, the 3D contours of an object are flattened, forming thousands of polygons (mostly triangles) that represent the surface of the object. As polygons, these triangles can be represented in two dimensions—at which point colors, shading and textures are added to the object’s surface—then contorted back into a 3D shape that captures most of the visual detail of the original but has a file size small enough to load in a web browser.

In the rendering of the Gunboat Philadelphia above, for instance users can examine the vessel’s textured planks to see the spot where it was hit by a British cannonball in October 1776.

The viewer allows users to explore these models in detail—rotating the items, isolating different components of them, measuring them with built-in tools and creating specific views that can be shared over social media or embedded on a website or blog post just like a video. It also makes it possible to take a virtual guided tour of the object (by clicking on the globe icon), with text, images and video that accompany a specific set of views and let users learn historical and scientific background. “The 3D explorer allows you to tell a story,” Rossi says. “Essentially, you can use the 3D model as a scaffolding to tell the history of an object.”

The Digitization Office staff see dozens of potential uses for these models: Teachers can use them as education tools, researchers can use them to analyze their own artifacts and share them with colleagues, and most of all, they’ll allow the public to more easily appreciate millions of Smithsonian objects, both on display and hidden away in archives. Once, plaster masks—such as the mask of Abraham Lincoln made shortly after his death, above—were the height of technology used to preserve the three-dimensional shape of a specimen or artifact. Now, digital capture of an item’s contours in three-dimensions can be done with lasers and computer software.

In addition to the compressed versions of these artifacts available in the viewers, the Digitization Office has also made the full-size 3D datasets available for downloading, which will let users use 3D printers to recreate the objects in full detail at any scale. Although 3D printing at home is still in its nascency, they’re becoming increasingly economical, with base models now available for a few hundred dollars. “We think the implications of this are pretty big,” Rossi says.

So far, the Digitization Office has scanned hundreds of objects. For the first batch of viewable items, they chose a sampling that represents all of the fields of inquiry the Smithsonian is involved in—art, history and science, conveyed with priceless artifacts, ancient specimens and, in the case of an orchid, actual living organisms.

This whale fossil, for instance, was scanned when dozens of seven million-year-old whale remains were discovered in Chile, in the path of imminent Pan-American Highway construction. To preserve the specimens in their geological context, Metallo, Rossi and others scanned them in 3D. “ Nick Pyenson is already planning on using these viewers to share information with researchers in Chile,” Rossi says. “So this site no longer exists in Chile, but anyone is still able to take measurements of it and use that data.”

Scanning has also been put to use as part of internal Smithsonian projects, such as the comprehensive scanning of Dinosaur Hall to document the position of all of the hall’s specimens before it closes next year for a ground-up renovation. As part of the project, the team scanned the wooly mammoth represented above.

“This was challenging not only because of the size, but also its complexity,” Rossi says. To capture the contours of every rib bone and tusk, he and Metallo had to position their scanners in more than 60 different vantage points, then carefully knit together the data sets to yield a complete animal.

They’ve gone small, too, with specimens such as the bee above, taken from the Smithsonian’s entomology collection. In order to capture details as small as the hairs on its abdomen, Metallo and Rossi used a micro CT scanner, which is similar to a medical CT scanner, but able to capture smaller objects at high resolution.

With their scanning technique practiced and a new means of sharing their data with the public, Rossi and Metallo’s plan going forward is to increase the scale of their operation. “The next step is going big—scanning hundreds or thousands of objects per year, instead of a few dozen,” Rossi says. It might not be possible to digitally capture all 137 million of the Smithsonian’s items, but they want to scan as many as they possibly can.

For the rest of the first batch of models—including digital versions of Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, a 550 A.D. intricately carved “Cosmic Buddha” sculpture and the remnants of a distant supernova—head over to the Smithsonian X 3D site. The conference is sold out, but is being simulcast online, and an associated showcase of 3D technology is open to the public.

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