3D Digitization: Exploring Virtual 3D Models

Huge paradigm shifts in museum culture are underway as a variety of institutions are engaging in 3D digitization to democratize their collections through the digitization of priceless artifacts and bringing access to the masses (Milroy & Rozefelds, 2015). Scientists in the fields of anthropology and paleontology have been using photogrammetry techniques to capture and record measurements of physical objects, but technological advancements now enable high quality digital scanning with specialized hardware, such as the Makerbot Digitizer (costs approximately $800) and the NextEngine 3D scanner (costs approximately $3,000).

Once the files are converted to virtual 3D models, they are made available on a variety of websites where you can access the files to download (as .stl formatted files) or explore within interactive 3D viewers.  This allows you to not only have access to the digital file (to print a physical copy of on your own) but it allows you to virtually interact with the 3d model on your own computer screen. Imagine being able to explore priceless artifacts that are typically hidden behind glass enclosures at a museum on the other side of the world or explore fossilized remains of ancient creatures found during a research excavation.

Smithsonian X 3D
Smithsonian X 3D is a 3D model database allows anyone with an Internet connection access to Smithsonian’s most renowned artifacts. You can explore a variety of virtual models by rotating the items, isolating different components of them, measuring them with built-in tools and creating specific views that can be shared over social media or embedded on a website or blog post just like a video. Additionally you can explore “tours” of select artifact collections and archaeological sites that are complete with 3D models, expert-written text, and additional resources.

Classroom integration example of Smithsonian X 3D. Take your students on a virtual tour of Cerro Ballena, Chile to learn more about whales ancestors by exploring Balaenopteridae fossils.

Duke University’s Morphosource is an image-sharing resource designed to allow users to upload, search, and browse high quality 3d models. is an online database of 3D models. Using the Creative Commons model, Morphosource encourages citizen scientist and the democratization of access to artifacts. As such, a variety of academic institutions and natural history musems are using Morphosource to facilitate collaboration, consolidate repository holdings, and provide access to the public.

Classroom integration example of Morphosource. Explore patterns in human evolution by comparing and contrasting virtual models of skeletal remains.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Digimorph is a lab that creates and shares 2D and 3D visualizations of the internal and external structure of living and extinct vertebrates, and a growing number of ‘invertebrates.’ Users can search a variety of specimens and explore virtual models and animations that detail the morphology of specimens in unique multimodal ways. With partnerships from a variety of academic institutions and paleontologists, Digimorph provides informative research publications with each specimen to deepen the potential learning.

Classroom integration example of Digimorph. Explore x-ray CT scans of various horned lizards and attempt to hypothesize reconstructions of what their ancestors may have looked like.

NASA 3D Models
Among the variety of data sets related to space exploration, NASA 3D Models contains a variety of 3D digitiazations of spacecraft, topographical maps, and plantary objects. Additionally, they have compiled several visualizations that allow users to explore landforms.

Classroom integration example of NASA 3D Models. Explore the impact that volcanic lava flows has on the near and far side of the moon’s surface.

Milroy, A. A., & Rozefelds, A. C. (2015). Democratizing the collection: Paradigm shifts in and through museum culture. Australasian Journal Of Popular Culture, 4(2/3), 115-130.

*Note: this post is part of a roundtable with Dr. Jason Trumble and Claudia Grant presented at the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) conference. Click here to view the full paper.