We have spent our time recently on 3D modeling techniques and methodologies for use in Digital Humanities projects. These tools allow for previously impossible renditions of historical places and things, but they aren’t a universal cure-all; they aren’t inherently better or more effective than any other tool of historical analysis. However, the right kind of modeling tool, used in the right way, can bring new insights or new learners into the fold.
Appropriate Projects for 3D Modeling
As I mentioned earlier, 3D modeling isn’t a generally applied cure-all that improves any project that it is part of. Additionally, “3D Modeling” isn’t one tool, but an umbrella term for a group of tools that can be use to render digitized, three-dimensional models of something.
Some research questions are better than others for effectively using 3D Modeling. What is your hypothesis trying to prove? Often the questions where 3D modeling is served best are spatial or architectural in nature. For example,
How does the interior of this building facilitate movement through it/lighting inside it?
How does the organization of this city/village interact with the surrounding landscape and affect the social/religious lives of its inhabitants?
How does our perception of this space change when we can “experience” it from a first person view instead of referencing from photos and accounts?
Additionally, academic and historical entities are increasingly taking advantage of laser-based scanning tools to create highly detailed models of artifacts for preservation and increased viewership/interaction.
Choosing the Right Tool
There are a lot of different tools that fall under the 3D Modeling umbrella. Manual modeling tools such as Sketchup allow for detailed models, but are often finicky, time-intensive, and small-scale. However, if the focus of the research question is based around detailed recreation of specific buildings or structures, manual modeling is the way to go.
Procedural modeling allows for the modeling of lots of structures based on location and built with sets of “rules” that determine how the 3D part of the building is created. Procedural modeling is great if you have plans or maps of a space with lots of buildings and are looking at the organization, orientation, or layout of the buildings together. Research that focuses on the organization of historical cities and villages for various purposes benefits from procedural modeling. Procedural and manual modeling can also be combined effectively if there are a few buildings where detail is important, but the model benefits from having a surrounding environment for context.
Other types of tools, such as scanning and photogrammetry, rely on being able to photograph or bounce light off of physical objects that currently exist in the real world. Preservation and cataloging projects rely on scanning to preserve artifacts and pieces of cultural heritage. The tools for this can be much more expensive, as you have to purchase or have access to a laser scanning rig, but the detail and accuracy of the scans is fantastic. Likewise, photogrammetry is the use of photos of an object or structure from many angles to create a rendering of that object.
Example: The Virtual Hampson Museum’s 3D Visualization of a Nodena Village
The Virtual Hampson Museum was initiated to increase the accessibility and visibility of its vast collection of artifacts from the Mississippi River Valley and various sites within it. One part of the virtual museum is the 3D rendering of a Nodena village based on historical accounts, found artifacts, and the well-demarcated remains of the borders of the village.
This project shows one of the reasons that 3D modeling can make a real contribution to a project. Above are images from the 3D model of the village, and below is a map of the site as it was excavated.
The 3D rendering with a surrounding world allows viewers to feel like they can place this village that existed (approximately) 500-700 years ago in our own world. The map technically contains much of the same spatial information, but by interpreting it visually and spatially in the way that we perceive our own world, patterns and organizational facets are seen more easily, and the project is more accessible to the viewer.
However, there are fallbacks to these kinds of tools. In particular, by having to define specific measurements, materials, and features in order to generate a model we force the appearance of certainty when it may not be merited. This is similar to the way that maps can “lie” in order to create a narrative or clarity within a complex system. The more certain and simple a model is, the more it must omit. This is less the case with scanning and photogrammetry, where an existing object is simply rendered, but in procedural and manual modeling decisions must always be made that aren’t based in objectivity. This is not to say that historians and projects like these don’t do their absolute best to find every piece of relevant information in order to fill in the gaps. However, there will always be gaps, and it is in filling in those gaps that models can (even unknowingly) be wrong or omit the wrong things.
3D Modeling has come a long way in a very short time, and will only continue do so at an increasing rate. Its ability to provide (literally) new ways of looking at things for scholars and to increase visibility and accessibility of projects is too great for it to be discarded as a tool-set. However, like any tool set, each type of modeling process is specialized, requires a specific skill-set, and should only be used in certain situations.