Exploring the Capabilities of 3D Digital Technologies for Research and Education at Florida State University Libraries: Part One

New and innovative technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), 3D modeling, and 3D printing have drastically impacted the way museums, libraries, and universities interact with and engage diverse audiences. Using digital technologies and immersive scholarship (research and teachings that utilize 3D data through 3D printing, VR/AR, and interactive 3D publications), museum and library professionals have been able to experiment with and create unique “edutainment” experiences — combining entertainment with practical educational concepts. Similarly, the COVID-19 global pandemic has pushed many institutions to make their collections increasingly digitally accessible for researchers and the general public. As museums and related organizations respond to shifting political, economic, and social landscapes, these institutions must begin to consider the necessity and importance of incorporating digital technologies within their research, exhibitions, and public programs.

When thinking about how to effectively make use of digital technologies for research projects or educational experiences, institutions must consider:

  • Why might these technologies be necessary to incorporate?
  • What are the main goals of using these types of technologies?
  • How can these technologies be used to support specific groups or communities?
  • How feasible is the work necessary to effectively implement digital technologies?

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, however, by foregrounding these types of questions, researchers and museum professionals can more effectively consider approaches for integrating digital technologies into their work.

Two types of digital technologies that have proven to be promising for research, education, and entertainment are 3D scanning and 3D printing. 3D scanning technology is used to digitally recreate information about physical objects in a virtual environment — gathering raw data as “point cloud” information and converting it into user-friendly file-types like .CAD, .STL, .OBJ, or .GLB (Javaid et al., 2021). As a non-contact measuring technology, 3D scanning is incredibly useful for taking highly precise measurements without touching or damaging the physical object. As such, this technology has become a critical tool in museum and university collections for creating digital surrogates that increase access to historical objects and cultural heritage artifacts.

Additionally, 3D printing technologies are being used to turn virtual models into physical objects that can be used for analysis and examination (Junk & Matt, 2015). Although one of the first three-dimensional printers was developed by S. Scott Crump in the 1980s, 3D printing is still a relatively new technology. Basic 3D printers work by heating and extruding plastic filament through a small nozzle that moves around in specific patterns to build layers on a printing bed, eventually creating a 3D printed model. In contrast to filament printers, more advanced 3D printers use lights or lasers to cure liquid resin into layers. These processes for resin 3D printing are called digital light processing (DLP) and stereolithography (SLA), respectively. This technology allows resin 3D printers to create highly accurate models with more detailed features and smoother surface finishes than filament-based printers.

When used in tandem, these technologies can generate detailed digital and physical 3D models relatively quickly and affordably. A great example of a university taking advantage of 3D scanning technology for research and education is Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives Division (SCA). With over a million documents, objects, and university memorabilia, SCA actively works to digitize archival materials and make their collections available for use by remote researchers and virtual classrooms. A digital project that aims to enrich classroom and research experiences is DigiNole, comprising the Digital Library and the Research Repository. The Digital Library includes materials from SCA collections, while the Research Repository shares materials from the entire FSU community. DigiNole “provides online access to thousands of unique and historical materials, as well as the products of original research by the FSU community (About DigiNole).” Additionally, SCA supports the creation and longevity of FSU’s digital projects, providing students and researchers with expertise in the digitization of materials, digital project management, metadata creation, and digital preservation (FSUSCA).

In conjunction with the work being done through SCA, the Office of Digital Research and Scholarship at FSU (DRS) is similarly focused on exploring the research capabilities of 3D digital technologies. Equipped with two 3D printers and an Artec Space Spider high-resolution 3D scanner (pictured above), DRS has begun to investigate options for creating high-quality digital and physical replicas of cultural heritage materials. These replicas can be made accessible when they would otherwise be too fragile to handle or manipulate, and can be widely disseminated to individuals that would otherwise not have access to the materials (Hunter et al., 2020). An example of objects 3D printed for this purpose is pictured below; DRS collected and printed several models related to Greek and Roman culture that were used as teaching tools for children with visual disabilities. Some objects, like the kantharos (a type of Greek cup), have raised textural features which enable deeper engagement through tactile sensory experience.

The work being done through SCA and DRS highlight effective uses for implementing digital technologies like 3D modeling and 3D printing. Ultimately, as these tools become cheaper, more efficient, and more widely available, research institutions should make efforts to adopt immersive scholarship within their work. Future work using digital technologies must additionally consider the ethical dilemmas and challenges that may inevitably arise when working with objects of cultural importance.

Yatil Etherly is a second-year master’s student in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies at Florida State University where he works as a Graduate Research Assistant for FSU Libraries/FSU DRS. With research interests in digital humanities, immersive scholarship, and cultural heritage work, Yatil is dedicated towards exploring the ability digital technologies have to empower historically marginalized groups.

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