Intro: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast. The show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons. And today we join NCPTT’s Jeff Guin as he speaks with Bernard Frischer of Frischer Consulting. They will discuss 3D digital documentation of historic resources and the project, “Rome Reborn.”
Guin: I’ve heard the term “Born Digital.” Could you explain what that means for me?
Frischer: Born digital means that the product came into life by means of digital technology, and it didn’t exist before. So we might have a document that we scanned and we ended up with a digital file, well that is not born digital. I like to call that “re-born digital” that started life as an analog document. On the other hand, if we make a computer model of the Colosseum, and we use CAD software to do that, we may be inputing measurements that we’ve taken from the Colosseum, but we are not re-creating digitally a previously existing analog product, like a model. So that is what I would call something that is born digital.
Guin: That brings us into a very high-profile project that you’ve been working with called Rome Reborn. Tell us about how that started and where it is today.
Frischer: I always say that Rome Reborn started in the 15th century–of course my own involvement happened a few years later, starting in the mid-1970s. But seriously, in the mid-15th century, the vision occurred to people in Rome, actually some papal secretaries, especially one named Flavio Biondo to reconstruct ancient Rome. It was largely in ruins but there were enough ruins around to inspire people to study them and to learn from them to reconstruct modern Rome. And so this vision of reconstructing Rome started.
I saw a physical model of ancient Rome made from 1933-1973 when I was a young Ph.D. starting a post-doc in Rome in archeology, and I was blown away by this physical model. It was called the “Physical Model of Ancient Rome.” And I thought, coming from a background in photography and electronic music and other technologies, but also from a background in humanities in archeology that there ought to be some technology to get this wonderful, physical model out of this one obscure museum in Rome and into the hands of the people in the world. And that’s really where Rome Reborn started as far as I’m concerned.
Guin: Tell me more about the technologies themselves.
Frischer: It started out as something very exotic and expensive that mainly was available through the manufacturers of hardware and software who produced the equipment you needed to do 3D, and this started in the 1970s. And through a lowering of the price in the 1990s, and especially in the last 10 years, the technology has become ubiquitous in fields like architectural history, archeology–any field in which you are documenting a 3D object. That’s the kind of economic history. In terms of the more technological history of 3D technology, you could say that 3D technology started really divided into two branches right from the beginning. A branch that had to do with 3D data capture, and that resulted early on in the development of the 3D laser scanner and then other kinds of scanners: structured light, time-of-flight, and so on. And that’s how you can capture an object that fully exists in the real world.
And the other branch is CAD, or computer-aided design, and a subdivision of that is 3D modeling. We have on the CAD side standard software that people use is AutoCAD made by AutoDesk. The 3D modeling side, we have a package such as 3D Studio Max or Maya 3D, also published by AutoDesk, that we use when the object we want to capture can only be captured from our imagination. There’s nothing to scan because it is very damaged or it doesn’t exist anymore. We may only know about it from old photographs, records, memories of people or archeological excavations. So over time, these two different branches, of 3D scanning and hand modeling, have come together. And in our project, we have a really good example of a hybrid way in which the two approaches to 3D have been merged, I think in a very useful way. And what we are doing with Rome Reborn is something, I think, most people now, working with 3D in the cultural heritage sphere are doing more and more of–combining these two different branches as they have developed over the last 20 years.
Guin: What has been the nature of the relationship between these technologies and actually using them in cultural heritage?
Frischer: The cultural heritage application is one of the more recent and latest applications of this technology. I mentioned that it started out being very exotic and expensive. Before it was even used by industry, like oil and gas exploration more commonly, it was used by the military. And it was really thanks to the military that we even have this technology. In the 1970s, the early 3D companies were involved in producing flight simulators to train jet pilots for the military. Then that was civilianized and was used to train civilian aviators. As time has gone on, industry has continued to play a very big role in pushing this technology forward. And today, the largest impetus is coming from the game industry. And we have to really thank all of our children for being such fanatics of gaming because that’s pouring billions of dollars of development into the hardware and software that we need in cultural heritage. The cultural heritage use goes back to the late 1980s. As far as I know, the pioneering application of 3D technology to heritage was a show put on by IBM in London in 1989-90, and it was dedicated to Pompeii. And I found that show very inspirational.
A couple of companies then sprung up around the world to try to commercialize this more generally in cultural heritage. They didn’t do too well in the 1990s because prices were still too high. By the mid to late 1990s, scholars started to be able to afford and started to play with this new technology. It was still fairly expensive. We had a supercomputer at UCLA, an SGI-Onyx that cost a million dollars. I now have much more computing power in my $1,500 Sager gaming computer than we had in that million-dollar SGI that we purchased in about 1996-7. But as the prices have come down and the technology has become more and more powerful, the cultural heritage applications have proliferated, and now there are probably one-to-two thousand architectural historians and archeologists around the world who are really working full time with this technology and starting to turn out a pretty big archive of material for us to use and study.
Guin: You’re actually involved with an initiative now to archive that so that people in the future can actually access that data and use it. Tell me about that.
Frischer: The initiative is called SAVE, which stands for Serving and Archiving Virtual Environments. The initiative has an archival goal, and the name, SAVE, pertains very nicely to that goal of saving the stuff were are creating for the future, for future generations. Ironically, a lot of us in virtual heritage are helping to save and transmit and re-interpret the heritage of the past, but we are not paying enough attention to the fact that what we are doing, in so doing, will be of interest to people in the future. And we’re creating a new kind of heritage that needs to be preserved. But the other part of SAVE, besides archiving, is dissemination. That’s the S: “serving” an archival environment. Another big problem of the current day isn’t that we aren’t worried about saving our work for the future, but that we are not able to get it out to our fellow professionals and to the general public to students and scholars around the world. There is no online peer-reviewed journal where people can read about and use these 3D models. The purpose of the journal, SAVE, will be to publish the models so they can be used in real time by people on the Internet, and related monographs and articles, documentation, bibliography and metadata so that the models can be understood. And we are working on major commercial publishers to actually get SAVE implemented over the next 12 to 18 months.
Guin: What does this mean to the common person? And what’s it gong to mean to them in the future?
Frisher: We know from Aristotle and we know from contemporary cognitive psychologist and psychologists of perception that man or humans are visual animals. We learn through the senses. And of all the senses, as Aristotle said, vision is perhaps the most powerful and to us the most useful. So what will it mean when this enormous heritage legacy of mankind is available to us on the Internet in its original 3D form, easily accessible at little or no cost? I think it will mean, for the common man first of all, an even greater interest in cultural heritage. We already know that the Metropolitan Museum gets more guests every year than all of Major League Baseball. So we know that people love cultural heritage and so we don’t have to worry about building up an audience for cultural heritage, but we do have to worry about making cultural heritage more accessible and understandable. Since we are primarily visual people and these are visual objects, the easiest way for someone to understand a 3D object is to see a 3D object. Not to read about it. Not to see a 2D–especially abstract representation of it like an architectural plan section or elevation. But to actually see the 3D thing in all its glory and even to be able to seemingly walk through it and experience it.
We’re working now, through SAVE, with ways to make that available to the public on the Internet, but we are also, more interestingly, working with companies to make it available on smart phones as an application on say, an iPhone. So as you are walking around Rome, you’ve downloaded the program, you can see on your iPhone–or other app phone–a representation of the city as it looked at some early phase in its development, say in antiquity. And you can get along with that image, some information describing what you’re seeing. I think that this will enhance and enrich tourism and probably make tourism an even greater growth industry in the 21st century than it was in the 20th century, which is saying quite a lot. And it will mean tourists will go more and more off the beaten track because they won’t need guides and preparation, they will be able to get the information delivered just when they need it. So it will be “just on time” information.
Guin: And you have actually already started down that trail … and there is something people can get to now, which is your collaboration with Google Earth.
Frischer: Yes. We have a very good relationship with Google Earth. We published the Rome model in simplified form in Google Earth. They call it “Ancient Rome 3D.” And it is a featured layer in Google Earth that all 500 million-plus subscribers can view for free. Google would ask us to add more historic cities to Google Earth. It doesn’t make sense for them to just have Rome. Once they start on this path, they need to cover the whole planet in a rather consistent way.
If your listeners have a good model of any significant cultural heritage site, please let us know. [Contact information in the audio or the Frischer Consulting website]
Guin: And what projects are you working on right now?
Frischer: Beside the SAVE initiative, we are doing a prototype with a new NSF grant, for which we are very grateful. We are working on a model of Hadrian’s Villa. And the purpose of that project to model this world heritage site, is to experiment with virtual world software. Virtual world software: the most famous is Second Life. We have some problems with Second Life. We don’t like the fact that it’s not open source and we don’t like the fact that there are no loaders for standard 3D file formats.
So we made our model of Hadrian’s Villa using AutoCAD, and when we bring it in to a virtual world, we don’t want to have to completely rebuild it from scratch as we would have to do in Second Life. So we found an open-source equivalent called Open Simulator, and we’re working with IBM, which is one of the prime movers and developers behind Open Simulator, to bring Hadrian’s Villa into a virtual world software environment. And we’re doing that in order to test of out some ideas of a young scholar in Rome who has recently published a book about the site, about how the six groups of people who used the villa when it was new in the 130s A.D. interacted–from the emperor down to the slaves. And you really need to have bots and avatars–3,000 of them by the way–moving around this 250-acre complex to test out her ideas, refine them and make them better. And she is working with us to do that by the way. And so we’re looking at virtual world technology as a medium for scholarly investigation, expression and communication.
We’re also very interested in scanning and publishing to the Internet with secure remote rendering, very detailed models, very high-resolution models of sculpture. Sculpture is something that has been neglected by virtual archeologists today, probably because a sculpture is typically a very organic form. And in order to model it, you need to create a model with many, many polygons. And this is very hard for the computer to process in real time, so I think scholars have tended to shy away from it. But working with David Koller, my post-doc, who came to us from the computer science department at Stanford, where he worked on the famous Digital Michelangelo project with his professor, Mark Lavoy, in the 1990s. We’ve been really going great-guns with sculpture, and we think that the scanning of sculpture has a great future and is very important in cultural heritage. What we can do with sculpture, once we have a digital model, is what we used to do with casts. So we think of the digital model of a statue as pretty much being the equivalent to the old cast version of a statue. We can use it to represent different hypotheses of reconstruction—put the arms on and put them in different positions, which we are doing with the Laocoön in the Vatican. We can also restore polychrome. We can restore the color if it’s been lost, which we used to do with casts, of course we don’t want to do that with the original. We can easily do that with the digital model. And of course we can, as with casts, make copies. But we can make digital copies and transmit them on the Internet much much more easily than we can even with casts.
Ammons: That was Jeff Guin interviewing Bernard Frischer. If you would like to learn more about this project, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.