Interview with Smithsonian X 3D Team about 3D Printing Initiative

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This past week, the Smithsonian Institution unveiled Smithsonian X 3D, an online 3D digital collection that allows anyone to 3D print the museum’s most iconic objects.

To learn about the program, read our coverage: Smithsonian X 3D Launches with Emphasis on Outreach and Digital Preservation.

In this article we wanted to dive deeper into the process of creating these 3D printable assets, and also interview two key members of the team.

A Closer Look: 3D Scanning and Rendering Cosmic Buddha

In the gallery below, we provide a closer look at the process of 3D scanning and rendering digital assets for Smithsonian X 3D.

Smithsonian 3D Digitization Coordinator Adam Metallo scans the Cosmic Buddha at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Gallery.

The Buddha’s intricate carvings contain narrative scenes that depict a conceptual map of the universe depicting the Buddhist Realms of Existence, but the shallowness of the relief made it difficult for viewers and scholars to decipher.

A 3D digital rendering of the Buddha was able to increase the contrast of the carvings, providing a much more detailed and complete look at the artifact. An interactive 3D rendering will go on exhibit with the statue in 2013.

Interview with the Smithsonian X 3D Team

We caught up with Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo, 3D Program Officers under the Digitization Program Office for an interview.

Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi whale fossil

Pictured above: Smithsonian 3-D Digitization coordinators Adam Metallo (L) and Vince Rossi stand behind a whale fossil in the Atacama Desert near Caldera, Chile. The massive “whale graveyard” was discovered by construction crews working to widen the Pan-American Highway (part of which can be seen in the bottom left of the photo). Metallo and Rossi accompanied Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History paleobiologist Nicholas Pyenson to the excavation to capture 3D digital information about the fossil which would remain in Chile at the Paleontological Museum of Caldera. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

On 3D Printing: Please tell us about the original inspiration for this project. Who proposed the idea? How hard was it to get support?

Rossi & Metallo: We originally started thinking about how this technology can be used to better do our jobs within the museum—how can we use it to make better exhibits. We quickly realized that the potential of using 3D technology went far beyond just exhibits and we started to apply the tech towards research, conservation and collections applications.

On 3D Printing: Is the motivation preservation of historic objects or getting copies in people’s hands?

Rossi & Metallo: Our motivation is many-fold, but ultimately we want to use this technology to help tell stories about our collection and share our knowledge beyond our physical museum walls.

On 3D Printing: How open is the project with respect to IP and mashups?

Rossi & Metallo: We’ve released this data for non-commercial use (personal and educational).

On 3D Printing: How do you anticipate 3D printing contributing to the success of this project?

Rossi & Metallo: 3D printing is only just starting to be used in a personal and educational manner. We hope that this will be a resource to schools and make object-based education using our collection even more accessible. Please see our Education page for more details. and watch our 3D education video.

On 3D Printing: There have been other initiatives like the MakerBot Met digitizing event. Did you learn anything from these past events?

Rossi & Metallo: Crowdsourcing the digitization of objects is one way to scale the creation of this kind of data. However, most of those projects have focused on large, stone sculpture using only photogrammetry as the capture method. We wanted to test out this technology for a variety of objects and materials that you can find in our collection—objects from an airplane to an insect the size of your fingernail.

With our 20 use cases we have almost every one of the 19 Smithsonian museums represented – this points to both the scale and variety of our collection. Our next step is to look for ways to scale up our 3D efforts. These kinds of artifacts require more precise capture and data rendering tools.


Thanks to Mr. Rossi and Mr. Metallo for their time in this interview!

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