A digital 3D model is essentially a set of instructions, interpreted by a computer and displayed as an object which appears to have length, breadth and depth. Using sophisticated computing technologies, models can look ‘photorealistic’ – i.e. visually identical to real world objects. The technology is widespread and is used in videogames, architectural visualisations, movies and by industrial designers.
Image by CyArk
The digital 3D model is a virtual object which can be viewed from many different perspectives*. In addition to being 'viewed' the 3D digital model can be used within digital simulations of real-world scenarios. For example, a digital aircraft model, when used with appropriate simulation software, will display similar aerodynamic properties as an actual, physical aeroplane. Another example, seen by a large number of people, is where the Met Office create 3D digital models of predicted weather patterns.
3D digital models can also be ‘printed out’ as real, tangible objects in a process known as 3D printing. In addition to enabling the creation of novel designs, 3D printing means fragile original objects can be digitised and their 'printed' copies displayed instead. This technique, which theoretically allows infinite duplication of real world things, promises significant impact on museum and special research collections. The limitations of viewing 3D information on 2D monitor screens are also being overcome. Technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality represent powerful new methods to help us engage with digital 3D content.
As part of the 'open' movement (which also includes millions of photographs, sounds recordings and videos) tens of thousands of pre-constructed 3D digital models are freely available to anyone under non-commercial, Creative Commons licences. New models can be created using commercial 3D modelling software (e.g. Autodesk Maya) or open source alternatives (e.g. Blender). Building new 3D digital models is normally a highly specialised task, but some software (e.g. the web-based Google SketchUp) aims to greatly simplify the task and open up the creation of new 3D digital models to novices.
Falling costs and simplified workflows means using 3D content is now a realistic option, even for the non-specialist. This infokit is intended to prompt projects and individuals to consider a number of important issues before beginning so that ‘lessons learned’ from previous projects can be incorporated.
*Please note: the popularity of so called ‘3D’ televisions and movies has heavily influenced what we consider to be ‘3D’ content. These types of applications are more accurately described as ‘stereoscopic’ rather than truly 3D as they offer the viewer only a limited 3D perspective. While stereoscopic imagery has many research and teaching applications, it is not discussed here.