A Slow Start to a New Semester; Tying Up Loose Ends

Yes, the winter term started almost 2 weeks ago, and yes, I’m blogging about it now. To be completely honest, it was a little tough to get back in the swing of things this semester. I had two weeks back home in the GTA, and I wasn’t quite ready to immerse myself in a whole slew of new projects. But now, I am reemerging as the productive grad student that I am, ready to tackle 2017.

I realize I haven’t written about the outcome of my final digital history project. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out, and now I can say that I have successfully created a 3D model of an artifact. The project materialized as a comparison of different 3D modelling software, using the techniques of photogrammetry. The second component was looking at platforms for sharing it online.

The artifact I chose was a skull from the UWO Medical Artifact Collection. This collection is housed in the History department at Western, and it serves as an excellent teaching tool for undergraduates, graduates, and medical students. Unfortunately, some of the collection’s provenance is murky, and there wasn’t much I could find out about the skull I wanted to model. I chose the skull because it was a good size, made of an opaque material with a good amount of detail, regardless of its provenance.

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Myself with tripod, skull, and makeshift turntable.

Photogrammetry is a pretty fancy-sounding word, but all it really meant, for my purposes at least, was taking photos of an object from as many different angles as possible. The photos could then be cross-referenced for points that appeared in multiple photos, and these data points would create the 3D model. Photogrammetry is a tool not merely used to create 3D models of objects. It also has applications in archaeology, engineering, and design.

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Visual representation of photos taken relative to object.

The two software options I tried out were Autodesk Remake and Agisoft Photoscan. I also tried out the 123DCatch app on my phone, which is a free app that’s supposed to allow you to create small 3D models right on your smartphone. I had heard pretty negative reviews for it from several people, but decided to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I should have listened to their advice because 123DCatch did not work. After an hour and a half of processing time, I received a notification that the processing had failed, and would I like to save the photos to my phone to try again later? I saved all 70 photos, unaware that there is no option to upload photos from my camera roll…  Suffice to say, I do not recommend 123DCatch.

Between the computer-based programs, each had their pros and cons, but I prefer Remake overall. I liked it better because it offers cloud-based processing, which meant I could upload my files and then close the program, with a model to work with about two hours later. All that was left to do was clean up the model using the various erasing/slicing tools to get rid of the black base and that floating blob.

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Unedited results in Remake.

The processing time in Photoscan, on the other hand, took several hours with multiple steps involved, and crashed my laptop a couple times. It was not processed on the cloud, and while this may not be a problem for newer, more powerful models, my mid-2012 Macbook Pro couldn’t handle it (my laptop has been cause for concern recently). I also found the interface of Remake much more modern and straightforward to use than Agisoft, though it also ran poorly on my machine, with lots of lagging and a couple program crashes. Pro tip for editing 3D models on a laptop: use a mouse!

Eventually, I did manage to create two different models and post them online. I found the Sketchfab platform the best to use, as it accepted a wide range of file types and allowed for plenty of customization (including setting it up for virtual reality viewing!) and sharing options. Here are the finished products:

Remake: https://skfb.ly/WFxR

Photoscan: https://skfb.ly/XnTP

As you can see, the two models are both decent representations of the artifact. The Remake one shows more detail – probably partially because I had to set the processing quality to “medium” in the Agisoft one so that my computer wouldn’t explode. If you flip the models upside down, you would also notice slight differences in the hollow inside of the skull. This is due to differences in editing tools in the different programs. I tried to fill them in at one point, but, you guessed it, the programs crashed.

Overall, I am very pleased with how my models turned out and my choice of project. The process, especially with Remake, was fairly easy. The applications in a public history capacity and opportunities to apply my newfound knowledge are definitely there. Large museums like the Smithsonian and the British Museum have already put several artifacts online, serving as models for smaller museums to enter the world of 3D collections.

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