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Explore The Smithsonian’s Best Exhibits In 3-D–From Your Couch

The world’s largest museum is making its most special artifacts available in a way never seen before.

Every year, 30 million people come to see some of the world’s greatest scientific, historical, and cultural treasures at the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and galleries in Washington, D.C.

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That’s a lot of visitors, but billions of people are still left out–until now.

This week, the Smithsonian posted 21 of its top artifacts online in an incredible 3-D exhibit format that anyone with a web browser can view and explore. From the Wright Brothers’ airplane to the Cosmic Buddha to massive fossil whales, the X 3D explorer allows people to see the piece at all angles, as close up as they want.


“This lets people interact with objects in a way they simply couldn’t with them in the gallery,” says Smithsonian digitization office director Guenter Waibel.

People can cut away layers and take measurements, see animations and hyperlinks with curators’ notes, and look inside the engine of the Wright Flyer to see its innovative interior pistons. Students and researchers can download the raw data and 3-D print a physical model. Online viewers can conduct other experiments, like changing the lighting and even the material properties. They can also go on virtual tours. (You can see two here or go to the full site to do more. Note they do not work on Internet Explorer).

“Not only do you get to go behind the glass, you can see it at every angle,” says Brian Matthews, head of the reality computing group at the design software company Autodesk, which worked with the Smithsonian to specially create the web tool and conduct the 3-D scanning work. “Now everyone can be a researcher.”

The Smithsonian has been working for years to digitize its 137 million object collection, but so far that effort has mostly been in the form of traditional photography and scanning. Its goal is to get to 10% of the collection, and right now, it’s about one-tenth of the way to that goal. “To give you an idea of the scale of the challenge,” Waibel says, “if we were able to digitize 1 item every minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take 260 years to get finished with our entire collection. So clearly we have to prioritize.”

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Even this slow process works well enough for documents and simple artifacts. But a lot is obviously lost in the case of 3-D objects.

This is what led the Smithsonian to work with Autodesk to apply the techniques used by the top pros in Hollywood, product design, and manufacturing to capture the museum’s collection in 3-D. In addition, Autodesk developed the X 3D Explorer as a completely unique educational tool–the extent that students and researchers can interact with the artifacts remotely on the web is unprecedented, says Matthews.

The explorer could also help in the Smithsonian’s conservation and scientific teams, says Waibel. For example, Smithsonian scientists were last year called out to help remove the 40 pristine fossil whales that were found unexpectedly in Chile, when the government was widening the Pan American Highway. “They had to act quickly. The scientists were holding off the bulldozers,” says Waibel. They were able to use 3-D capture techniques to quickly document the fossils in-place before they were removed for further study. Now, they are part of the virtual exhibit long before they can be prepped for an actual museum.

The process for doing the scanning work varied by artifact. The “life masks” of President Abraham Lincoln’s face, were scanned using an articulated arm laser scanner–essentially gathering the geometry of the mask by painting a laser beam over it without making contact. That took a few hours. However, the Wright Flyer plane took two days of far more intensive work, says Waibel.

The project is only a pilot for now–with one artifact from each Smithsonian museum on display–but the institution is looking to see how people react and considering how to make more artifacts available. Waibel hopes to see the web tool used by many school classrooms.

But scaling up to large portions of the Smithsonian’s collection isn’t quite possible yet. Right now, 3-D scanning and processing technologies that capture images in high resolution are still expensive and hard to use. On the other end of the spectrum, there are simple apps and devices like the Microsoft Kinect that can do the job quickly and with less polish.

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“The technology exists today. It’s all real. But it’s time consuming and cost prohibitive. It hasn’t been automated yet,” says Matthews. Autodesk is working towards developing the high-end quality for the lower-end cost and convenience with its concept of “reality computing”: “What reality computing can do is take the world that already exists around us and allow us to digitize it and work with it,” says Matthews.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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