Smithsonian Puts 3D Scans of Its Collection Online

By Norman Chan

The 3D model gallery launches in beta with 21 scanned models.

Now this is really cool. At the commencement of its X 3D conference, the Smithsonian has launched the X 3D site to share 3D models of its collection with the public. The site is a milestone for the museum's Digitalization Program Office, which has been painstakingly scanning individual pieces in the museum's collection over the past few years. The scanning process, discussed in this video, has made use of many different 3D scanning technologies, include laser scanning, CT (x-ray tomography) scanning, and even photogrammetry (much like what Autodesk's 123D Catch uses to turn photos into a 3D model).

It's similar to what 3D modeler like Cosmo Wenman have been doing independently--visiting museums and scanning sculptures and artifacts to share 3D models with the public--but on an institutional level and with much better technology. Smithsonian has so far put up 21 models on the X 3D site, which can be examined in-browser using a WebGL 3D viewer. But a high-detail 3D dataset file is also available for each artifact, which can be processed for printing on consumer 3D printers.

The Digitalization Program Office at the Smithsonian has scanned hundreds of objects, some in collaboration with local universities to use their scanning equipment. But the team--which is still relatively small--has plans to ramp their pace up to several hundreds of thousands of scanned objects a year. What they've put online so far demonstrates not only the diversity of objects they are scanning--in fields ranging from art, history, and science--but also the varying degrees of complexity required for each scan. The massive wooly mammoth, seen above, required laser scanning from 60 different vantage points, something that the amateur 3D scanner would never be able to do on a visit to the museum. But with over 100 million items in the Smithsonian's catalog and archive, I hope that the Digitization Program Office reaches out to 3D scanning and modeling community for assistance in this unprecedented preservation and education effort.

You can watch the X 3D conference livestream here.