Print Your Own Revolutionary War Boat, In 3-D

Nov 13, 2013
Originally published on November 13, 2013 8:01 pm

Have you ever wanted to see a woolly mammoth skeleton? How about Amelia Earhart's flight suit (one worn before her fateful last flight, mind you)?

To see them in person, you can visit the Smithsonian's Natural History and Postal museums, respectively, in Washington, D.C. But now you can take a closer look — in 3-D — on the Smithsonian website, too. The institution has made 20 digitized objects from among its vast holdings available online to the public for viewing from every possible angle.

The Smithsonian gets more than 30 million visitors each year to its 19 museums, Gunter Waibel, the Smithsonian's digitization director who is heading up the X 3D project, tells All Things Considered's Robert Siegel. "That sounds like a really big number, but that also leaves out a lot of people."

And with only 1 percent of the institution's 137 million objects actually on display to the public at any given time, even museum visitors barely scratch the surface of the fossils, weapons, artworks, textiles and even historic furniture within the institutions' collections.

Digitizing its holdings — and making them available to anyone to view from any angle with its 3-D Explorer viewer — is "our way of ... letting you into the storeroom — letting you really explore parts of the Smithsonian you really wouldn't otherwise get to see," Waibel says.

Take the Gunboat Philadelphia, on display in the National Museum of American History. A floating gun platform built to keep the British at bay in New York's Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War, it was sunk by a British cannon in 1776, where it was perfectly preserved on the frigid lake floor.

Even in the museum, there's insufficient space for in-person visitors to walk around the entire boat. "So now, by making the 3-D model available, we can actually look at angles that visitors haven't seen ever since ... the object has been placed in the museum" in the 1950s, Waibel explains.

Examining and flipping the objects in the viewer is engrossing, but they're not just for looking. The Smithsonian has also made the data for each of its 20 currently digitized objects also available for free 3-D printing.

"We really wanted to take people's experience from ... interacting and seeing to an experience where they could actually get creative and really work with the data," Waibel says.

With such a vast collection of items across the Smithsonian collections, the institution doesn't plan on digitizing everything, explains spokeswoman Sarah Taylor Sulick. The scanning process for three-dimensional images is time-consuming and expensive, Sulick says. (Much of the current effort has been supported by in-kind technology and equipment.)

"So what we're trying to do with this program is digitize the kinds of objects that help us tell their stories in new and interesting ways," she says.

And don't go printing a 3-D model of that gunboat to sell on eBay — the data, Waibel says, are only for educational and noncommercial use.

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Until today, if you wanted to get a good, close look at, say, the world's first airplane, known as the Wright Flyer, you'd have to come to the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C. But the Smithsonian has been hard at work making 3-D scans of some of its most important artifacts, including the Wright Flyer.

And starting today, you can get that good, close look without leaving home. Today, the Smithsonian is unveiling its X3D collection online. And here to tell us about it is Gunter Waibel, who is the Smithsonian's director of digitization. Welcome to the program.

GUNTER WAIBEL: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: And first, explain to us how this works. How do you do a 3-D scan of an artifact?

WAIBEL: So there's actually a variety of techniques. One of the ones we use most often is something like an articulated arm laser scanner that you can paint a laser beam onto an object and it picks up the geometry of that object in that way. You can also have at laser scanner that functions by a rotating mirror and it basically - you put it on a tripod, you put it in the middle of the room and it picks up the entire geometry of everything it sees in the room.

A third technique is you can just take a whole bunch of overlapping photos and then post-process them into 3-D data. So that's a very, very cheap and very effective way of doing this that actually everybody can do. There's online software that's free where people can upload those photos and get a 3-D model back.

SIEGEL: Well, let's tell people some of the things that are already digitized to 3-D. One of the objects that people can see is the gunboat Philadelphia. This is a very early U.S. naval craft.

WAIBEL: Yes. This is a gunboat from the revolutionary wars, not surprisingly sunk by the British. It sank to the bottom of Lake Champlain, where it was perfectly preserved because at the bottom of the lake the temperatures were so cold that bacteria couldn't survive. And it was hoisted to the surface of the lake in the '20s and then moved into the American History Museum in the 1950s as it was being built.

SIEGEL: And online, you can rotate this 3-D representation of the Philadelphia. You could - you can look right through the cannonball hole that resulted in its sinking.

WAIBEL: Yeah. It's really remarkable. And, you know, the thing that's striking to us about this is that when you go to the American History Museum and you see the gunboat Philadelphia, you will see that it is in a space where it is a bit crammed. It's a big boat, and you really can't walk around the entire boat. Now by making the 3-D model available, we can actually look at angles that visitors haven't seen ever since the object has been placed into the museum.

SIEGEL: Now, here's the interesting thing. You're doing this in part because people, or institutions, might have 3-D printers and they could actually print three-dimensional models of these very objects. Is that right?

WAIBEL: Yeah. So we really wanted to take people's experience from interacting and seeing to an experience where they could actually get creative and really work with the data. So we're making data of these models available as a free download for educational and non-commercial use.

So, for example, a teacher could work with a class on printing a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, which is one of the objects in our collection. And then they could take that object to history class. And the students could hold that object in their hand, and they could trace, literally trace, the furrows on Lincoln's face and get a much better understanding of what toll the Civil War took on this man.

SIEGEL: Do people in your line of work ever wonder how good copying items is going to get? That is, will we suddenly have the problem of the forgery statue that just looks to perfect because you can make, in effect, a digital copy of it?

WAIBEL: I personally actually don't worry about that. I think the original items will always evoke an emotive sense that a copy will not evoke. And I think we're very far from the point where that kind of facsimile copy could actually become reality.

SIEGEL: Well, Gunter Waibel, thank you very much for talking with us about 3-D at the Smithsonian.

WAIBEL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Gunter Waibel is the director of digitization at the Smithsonian. The website where you can see the items we've been talking about is no WWW, but Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.