3D Scanning My Vacation

How fascinating a way to preserve and present, not in amber but in ABS.

Along with my iPhone that I used to take hundreds of photos of my vacation, I also brought my Structure Sensor and a 3D printed bracket for my iPhone to make what Tom Burtonwood calls "physical portraits" of my friends and objects I encountered. The technology and tools of photography created the ability to capture and commit to a reproducible medium images associated with experiences. Looking at photographs stirs the memories of participants in the image depicted. Photographs foster the imaginations of and perhaps empathy from those looking at the image even if they were not present for its creation. Virtual reality and augmented reality dominate discussions of what realm users of mobile phones and home computers might yet explore. I believe that the physical fabrication of models of people and objects heretofore only depicted in photographs or video but now captured using 3D scanners and fabricated with 3D printers are an interesting alternative to two dimensional images. 3D models jog memories for those present just as a photograph does currently. The models create shared experiences between those present when the object was scanned and those who were not present to see and experience the object in situ but who can now experience a fabricated version of it.  By physically seeing and handling a model of the object people understand the object or the people depicted in the 3D printed model in more personal ways than from looking at a photograph. Such understanding can lead to more empathy that might manifest itself in the desire to do more to help preserve public and private lands or works of art, for example.

I was lucky to attend the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at the Seattle Science Center with my parents, wife, and son. I asked the staff if I was allowed to make 3D scans of these priceless artifacts, and after behind the scenes consultation I was granted permission. I 3D scanned six of the eight Terra Cotta Warrior statues. Though the resolution is not as fine as it would be were I permitted to be closer to the statues, I still captured good scans of the soldiers and a horse.

The Terra Cotta Warrior is an object whose sheer physical size amazes in real life. Photographs capture the details but it is hard to envision the object in its entirety from a photo or series of photos. The 3D printed model made from data captured with a 3D scanner allows you to physically handle the object. Were the facilities available, the statue could be fabricated at its original size.

These contemporary models above depicted the process by which the Terra Cotta Warriors were presumably fabricated.

Being able to handle and experience a priceless work of art makes the experience more personal for the viewer/handler. Think back to the Taliban's destruction of the priceless gargantuan Buddhas that have since been reproduced and fabricated at a smaller scale from 3D scans. Perhaps the availability of fabricated physical approximations cannot replace damaged or destroyed original works of art. Rather, these easy to fabricate models expose more people to the beauty and fragility of the originals, hastening their conservation or in the case of geopolitical threats, cultural genocide, or war, prompting nations to consider the importance of protecting antiquities?

Next, I took the 3D scanner into the outdoors on Lopez Island. While beach combing in a private bay my wife and I came across an amazing conglomeration of fossils in a large stone.

The light made it extremely difficult to 3D scan the stone but I was able to capture a full 360 degree view of it.

The completed model does capture some of the pitting and protrusions that are fossils on the original. Under better conditions perhaps a higher resolution scan could be made of individual parts of the stone; I never had the chance but I positioned the stone safely on the beach should I have the opportunity in the future.

Lighting conditions made it difficult to capture the stone in photographs, too.

How do you describe this artifact to somebody? The photographs show the details of shell impressions and perhaps even the impression from the tail or fin of a fish. But how does somebody who was not there experience the stone? A 3D printed copy of the stone in conjunction with the details of the photograph allow somebody who was not on the beach when the stone was uncovered to examine five of its six faces, to turn it over in one's hands and to see the stone in relation to smaller beach stones. Even not printed at actual size, the 3D printed model makes the artifact seem more real and tangible than photographs alone.

Point Colville holds a special place in my heart: I proposed to my wife there, I saw wild orcas swimming directly below its towering cliffs, and the landscape is both familiar and bent and twisted by the forces of the wind and water. The stone outcroppings there are stunning but impossible to conjure whether I try to photograph them or program their shapes in TurtleArt. I 3D scanned a section of one. Though the data was incomplete I was able to use Meshmixer to clean up enough of a section to be worth 3D printing.

Here we venture into Electric Sheep pastures where an approximation of the original object, fabricated with an incomplete data set, stands in for the original. The stone outcropping was too complex to capture, or the light was too bright, or I did not get all the right angles. Regardless of how incomplete the model, it is a convincing enough approximation that it can be shared. The person sharing such an ersatz model might fill in the details to a viewer by telling stories about the original, explaining how succulent plants and other life clung to the stone's surface, the jaggedness of the original not captured in the plastic print. Such an approximated model just barely stands in for the original but might inspire the viewer to travel to see it in person. Stories complete the details missed by the scanner. Perhaps now the person is aware of the beauty of the place from afar and might be moved to support efforts to preserve places under threat of development or climate change, even if she or he has never physically been to that place but rather has experienced it through approximated fabricated artifacts.

Finally, we come to my friends. I captured physical portraits of a number of them.

While not a replacement for a photograph's level of detail, the 3D printed model reveals all sides of the individual as well as their size relative to one another. It will be amazing years from now to look at my son's stature and posture at age 6, as I am sure my friends will appreciate the family portrait I scanned as a snapshot of a distinct moment in time. The faces are somewhat expressionless, but the models capture a specific moment and the associated memories in a way that adds to the realism of photography. These objects are much more personal, meaningless beyond novelty to those who do not know the individual. To those captured and preserved at a particular point in time they are time capsules. You can see yourself from without as others see you, unlike a mirror or a video. How fascinating a way to preserve and present, not in amber but in ABS.

I hope I have demonstrated how physical portraits might portend to be better totems of remembrance than photographs or even video in the age of digitization and fabrication. The ease with which one can capture and fabricate a three dimensional memento of a loved one or inanimate object brings an accompanying ability to provide others with a more complete, empathetic understanding of a person, place, or thing.