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During the past 20 years, the rapid development of personal computers and computer science has revolutionized the way people extract, analyse, represent and interact with information. Realizing that fact, Digital Humanities try to take full advantage of the new techniques and technologies developed, in order to efficiently manipulate and represent the vast information coming from the past and the present.Specifically in the field of representation and visualization, during the last years there is an increasing demand in three-dimensional(3D) representation of spatial information such as historical buildings, maps and landscapes. Modern hardware and software, through virtual environments and advanced computer graphics, give us the possibility to actually bring to life historical sites and even interact with them. Moving even further, the technology of 3D printing is finally being perfected and more accessible to the general public, realizing the concept of transferring these representations from the virtual to the real world.

3D modeling and reconstruction of historical buildings and mechanisms

Nowadays, sophisticated computer programs and platforms are widely used to model and reconstruct 3D representations of buildings and fabrications by various historical data. For example, [1] describes an effort of reconstructing  european and chinese astronomical clock towers through the use of a number of software programs and platforms, corresponding to the different stages of the reconstruction procedure. The endeavor is not as simple as it might seem at a first glance as it is not only about a static representation of  historical buildings, but more of geometric modeling the different parts and formulation and visualization of their relative motion. Towards this purpose, the researchers will first use modeling software like 3DSMAX and SOLIDWORKS to create the different static and dynamic parts as well as JavaScript and VRML technology to control the display. Moreover they will try to use procedural modeling for facilitating and automating mainly the modeling and production of the solid components of the structure. Finally they will use ADAMS software to link all these different parts to one complete system and conduct simulations and experiments on it to define missing information and unknown parameters. Doing this for european clock towers will be easier as there are lots of living examples across the continent, whereas information about the ancient chinese water-driven astronomical clock towers can be derived only by literary writings.

Considering the potential of using online 3D game engines

Taking a step forward,  DH scholars and researchers have considered using the new sophisticated 3D engines of online games to visualize archeological sites through virtual environments. Computer game  graphics have made a long way since their early applications, looking nothing like the simple 2-dimensional pixel-depiction of their predecessors. New and powerful online 3D game engines like Unity 3D, allow the reconstruction of large and detailed archeological environments containing a vast number of data. Users from all over the world are just some clicks away from this historical treasure and the only prerequisite is to possess an internet connection and a browser with the proper 3D engine plug-ins. Users will not only be able to virtually walk through ancient buildings and cities, but interact with the environment too. Depending on the purpose and the coding structure of the project, the user can have the ability to make annotations live as he wanders in the site or even actively change the environment according to his interpretation and historical knowledge. This could be proven very useful for scholars’ collaboration and restoration of missing pieces of information or clarification of ambiguous historical data. Of course, some control might be needed to the level of accessibility from the general public to such features, especially if it is feasible for the user to make important alterations.

Virtual Hadrian’s Villa simulation on Unity 3D engine by IDIA Lab

Shah Jahan Mosque interactive environment running on Unity 3D engine – property of Islam In British Stone Website

As an example of the above, the author of [2] has created a real-time reconstruction of a 18th century North American imperial fort, based on the Unity 3D engine. In this reconstruction the user can witness the real construction stages of the fort as it was developing through time as well as different interpretations about architectural features and additional data provided through links to documents,maps, multimedia etc dispersed across they layout.

Transforming virtual 3D models into physical objects

Desktop fabrication is a disruptive technology which enables the transformation of digital models to solid physical objects, made mostly of plastic. Desktop 3D printers, milling machines and laser cutters are some examples of this technology, used until recently mainly for prototyping and manufacturing applications. Although this fascinating technology is still not quite used in Digital Humanities, it presents great potential in preserving and exhibiting cultural heritage in real 3D models. The importance of 3D modeling and desktop fabrication research in DH is underlined in [3], which focuses on

  • Describing the current workflow of a desktop fabrication procedure, from photographing and digitizing the object of our interest, using proper computer software to extract,modify and bring to a printable format the virtual 3D models, all the way to its live interactive or online exhibition. Suggestions are also made on this workflow as well as basic ways to contribute to the desktop fabrication research in DH contexts.
  • Highlighting the importance of receiving feedback on the relevance of this fabrication on different aspects of Digital Humanities as well as using makerspaces in DH research. The basic elements and characteristics of a makerspace are also identified.
  • pointing out the need of defining optimized techniques in error-correcting 3D models,  attributing the materialized 3D artifacts, enhancing desktop fabrication and others.

To conclude, all the topics discussed above agree to one thing: 3D representation techniques are becoming extremely important in the area of Digital Humanities. Technology provides us with the tools to accurately reconstruct 3D cultural heritage objects, from buildings and cities to sculptures and mechanisms, not only in a virtual environment but in reality too. All these practises make history more tangible and accessible to the general public and to the  DH community. With the right amount of effort and investment in 3D simulation and desktop fabrication, the possibilities are endless.

References :

A Comparative Study of Astronomical Clock towers in Europe and China based on their detailed 3D modeling     Li, Guoqiang; Van Gool, Luc

A 3D Common Ground: Bringing Humanities Data Together Inside Online Game Engines  Coltrain, James Joel

Made to Make: Expanding Digital Humanities through Desktop Fabrication            Sayers, Jentery; Boggs, Jeremy; Elliott, Devon; Turkel, William J.