Smithsonian Event: Laser Scanning Becoming Key Component of Historic Preservation

The Smithsonian Institution sponsored a three-day conference on digitisation in October with a focus on historic preservation. Not surprisingly, laser scanning and virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) technologies were key topics of presentations and exhibitions during the event in Washington, DC.

Phat Nguyen, a Virginia Tech Visiting Professor and GeoSLAM ZEB Horizon user, attended the conference and graciously passed his insights along to us. Nguyen and his interdisciplinary team at Virginia Tech recently turned heads in the historic education and preservation field by using the GeoSLAM handheld unit to scan cramped World War I tunnels in France to create an immersive simulation. See more on that here.

The Smithsonian manages numerous museums and oversees preservation of literally millions of artefacts relating to history, culture, art, aviation, and technology. For decades, the Institution has worked to digitise its relics as a means of preserving them and making them accessible via other media to the public.

In recent years, the Smithsonian has been using 3D scanning to digitise items that will be viewable remotely online and with VR goggles, explained Nguyen. The beauty of 3D scanning is that it will enable the public to interact with artefacts and experience them from all sides, as if the item were right in the room with them or even held in the palm of their hands.

“Members of the Smithsonian Digitszation Team discussed scanning Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from the Apollo 11 mission and showed a video of the project,” Nguyen said.

Much of the historic digitisation is being accomplished with handheld laser scanners equipped with colour cameras, Nguyen noted. But he was surprised that some projects are still carried out entirely with digital cameras taking hundreds of photos of an object from every conceivable angle. Photogrammetric techniques are then employed to process the images into a cohesive 3D environment.

Although this process is time consuming and computer intensive, “3D photography captures the textures, intricate designs, and colours of paintings and statues,” said Nguyen.

The much faster and easier-to-use handheld scanners, like the ZEB Horizon, will likely grow in popularity for this type of application as users become better acquainted with the add-on cameras such as the ZEB Cam. Immediately after capturing the scan data and photos, the GeoSLAM Hub software can accurately and seamlessly generate coluorized point clouds in a single step.

Nguyen wasn’t able to attend all presentations at the Smithsonian event due to parallel tracks, but he believes his team’s Vauquois battlefield recreation remains somewhat unique in the historic education and preservation discipline. Rather than create a completely digital environment from their ZEB Horizon scans for use with a VR headset, the Virginia Tech team built a life-size physical model of the battlefield tunnels as well, giving students an experience they can see, hear and feel. This immersive model was displayed earlier this year during a separate event at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Phat Nguyen plans to attend next year’s Smithsonian Digitisation Conference and present on Virginia Tech’s unique approach to physically immersive VR education.

Want to know more about the Smithsonian’s digitization plans? Visit their website at https://3d.si.edu/, check out the conference event page at https://dpo.si.edu/2019-smithsonian-digitization-conference-welcome or learn about the Institution’s latest five-year plan at https://www.si.edu/strategicplan.

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