The 3D Program is a small group of technologists working within the Smithsonian Institution's Digitization Program Office. We focus on developing solutions to further the Smithsonian's mission of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” through the use of three-dimensional scanning technology, analysis tools, and our distribution platform.

This work is already transforming core functions of our museums. Researchers in the field can now come back not only with specimens, but also 3D data documenting entire sites. Curators and educators are using 3D data as the basis for telling stories and sending students on quests of discovery. Conservators are using 3D data to track the condition of a collection item over time using 3D deviation analysis tools, showing exactly what changes have occurred to an object.

To say that we have a large job facing us is an understatement. The Smithsonian has more than 155 million unique artifacts and specimens; 3D scanning collections of these objects will be no small task. The challenges presented by these collections are many, from the variation in the shapes, sizes, textures and fragility of items, each of which presents its own issues, to changing scanning technologies and the ever increasing numbers of collection items, we are set up for some daunting opportunities. Even if we were to scan those items at the wildly unrealistic rate of one per minute, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year it would take us over 300 years.

We’ve been learning how to overcome these challenges by doing significant work to create and test scanning workflows. Over the past few years, we’ve progressed from doing one-off 3D scanning projects, to more complex single projects (such as the space Shuttle Discovery and Tyrannosaurus Rex), to small sets of items. Now we’re moving into a new phase: developing strategies and processes for high-throughput 3D digitization that can allow us to capture entire collections of objects.

3d team members working on various projects

Leveraging the world's most advanced 3D scanning technology

Because of the scale of our challenge, we are partnering with the world's most advanced technology firms, collaborating on ambitious projects. Our hope is to help the Smithsonian share its collections with new audiences and find better ways to accomplish its mission, while giving our partners opportunities to develop new products and processes in automated, high-throughput, high-quality 3D scanning.

Currently, we are looking for partners to solve the following challenges:

  • finding ways to automate and scale parts of our process so that we can transition to a higher-throughput operation, while maintaining scanning quality and the highest level of safety for the objects and specimens being scanned;
  • creating an application program interface (API) that allows external platforms to connect to the Smithsonian content and seamlessly present it to their user base;
  • developing ways to manage, organize, and share the large amounts of 3D data and metadata (that is, data about the 3D data) that we collect, allowing viewers to understand where the models they are looking at came from and how best to interpret them;
  • enabling curators and other subject matter experts to enhance 3D models with annotations, creating stories around those models that enrich their educational content and blend effortlessly with the viewing experience;
  • creating an open source, web based 3D viewer that will allow users to appreciate the 3D models and data we create, regardless of what technology platform they use; and
  • building an open source community around the development and use of the applications we will create.

In a relatively short period of time, we have been honored to collaborate with colleagues across the Smithsonian Institution on projects as diverse as 3D scanning the Nation’s T. rex, the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, the Cosmic Buddha sculpture, President Abraham Lincoln’s life masks, the 1903 Wright Flyer, and many others. We have also partnered with some of the leading technology firms working in the field, including Autodesk and Google, to advance the state of the art in 3D scanning, VR and viewing technology. Ultimately, our hope is that the technology solutions we develop in collaboration with our partners will allow more meaningful interactions with the Smithsonian's collections for a far larger audience.

With only 1% of the Smithsonian's collections on display at any one time, digitization could allow us to bring the remaining 99% of the collection into the virtual light. These digital assets will allow not just the Smithsonian, but the world at large, to tell and share new stories about the familiar - and the unfamiliar - treasures in these collections.