3D digitisation - its history and future

colour photograph, a blonde woman wearing pink uses a headset and computer to look at a 3D model.

A short history and possible future of 3D digitisation in cultural heritage

When recently at The Cartoon Museum in London, I was struck by a cartoon by Roland Emett from Punch Magazine in 1953: 'Don't you think this three-dimensional business can go too far?'

black and white cartoon, a train with various fish and flying figures appears to emerge from a stage over the heads of a startled audience.

Being a partner in the EUreka3D project - which aims to build the capacity of small cultural heritage institutions particularly related to 3D digitisation - I found this cartoon both relevant and funny. It also made me realise that rendering a 3D world is not a new technology and our fascination for an artificial three dimensional world goes back even further than the 70 years of that cartoon.

3D illusion

Firstly, when we talk about 3D digitisation and 'looking at 3D', one must acknowledge that a three-dimensional representation, in any form, is an illusion made up of two-dimensional planes.

3D image and film

Ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, in the third century BC, recorded that the right and left eyes view an image slightly differently. It is this difference that makes the illusion of three dimensions possible.

black and white engraving, a profile portrait of Euclid surrounded by an ornate frame.

Almost from the birth of photography, in 1839, photographic prints called stereotypes were created using cameras that had two lenses, producing photographs that captured the moment of the scene from the perspective of both the left and right eye. Using a viewer called a stereoscope, the resulting 3D illusion became extremely popular and the images were widely reproduced for general sale to an amazed public.

colour photograph of a stereoscope headset with a print attached to it.

An alternative method of reproducing an image in 3D was to separate it into two different colour channels. Wearing 3D glasses with the same colours on opposite eyes would then create the illusion.

A more recent foray into printed 3D illusion is the MagicEye books that became popular in the 1990s.

a 3D image showing a male sculptor working on a dragon-like sculpture.
colour photograph of cardboard 3D glasses with blue and red lenses.

3D in motion and cinema

Following a similar timeline and technique of still images, 3D films were being attempted from the mid 19th century.

In 1895, the famous French Lumière brothers presented the 50 second film, L’Arrivee du Train. It was an attempt to create a 3D illusion and shows a locomotive train arriving at speed into La Ciotat Station. Reportedly, many moviegoers thought the train was going to crash into the theatre where they were seated and fled in absolute terror.

Louis Lumière later re-filmed the scene using a 3D stereoscopic film camera and exhibited it at a meeting in the French Academy of Science in 1934.

black and white photograph, profile portrait of two men.

1950s: the golden age of 3D

With the arrival of stereoscopic colour and sound, the 1950s became the 'golden age' of 3D cinema. This is the era of the iconic 3D glasses, and also, the basis of the cartoon depicted in Punch Magazine at the beginning of this blog.

3D would even arrive on television, with Fort Ti, starring George Montgomery and Joan Vohs - no surprises that it aired in the very same year, 1953.

Colour still image from a film, a native American woman and a man in military uniform sitting in a canoe, the man holds an oar and has a rifle slung over his shoulder

The demise of three-dimensions

The expense of creating 3D films stunted not only the first golden age but subsequent attempts to revive its popularity.

When digital cameras emerged in the early 21st Century, it was falsely anticipated that the costs to produce and show 3D films (essential without two analogue film stocks) would significantly reduce.

James Cameron made the first full-length 3D film using digital cameras in high definition, Ghosts of the Abyss, in 2003. Then, in 2009, he released Avatar (in 3D). It has remained the highest-grossing film of all time.

As an eager public bought expensive 3D televisions to watch, primarily live sport, in a digital revolution that seemed ready to make three-dimensional viewing commonplace. Sadly, the demand once again failed to make it an economically viable risk to continue.

The computer-generated environment - the third three-dimensional age?

Now, as we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century, are we ready to be immersed in a new 3D environment?

Three-dimensional computer-generated models are being created by professionals and amateurs alike, from both real and imagined source material, or combination of both. Much of this is due to the technology that layers and interlinks still imagery into fully multi-perspective frames.

These 3D models are only seen by users as 2D representations at the current rendered viewing point. These 3D models consist of layered and meshed 2D photographs, often thousands, taken from as many angles as necessary. The illusion of three dimensions is generated as the computer seamlessly renders a pre-existing perspective of the photographs based on how users change their plane of view.

colour photograph of a large-scale 3D printer.

3D models can be rendered on a simple, two-dimensional, computer monitor, or combined to be viewed in a fully immersive virtual reality experience. Models can also be printed on 3D printers, often bringing an imagined 3D into a real one.

The future of 3D

Vast investment by companies, like Facebook’s Meta, into the Metaverse give a hint of where we might be headed in the 3D future.

In this virtual space, we may find ourselves entering an interconnected imagined and immersive three-dimensional world, reminiscent of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One where we live the majority of our lives plugged into an enhanced computer-generated world instead of our real world.

Saving the past for the future

Even as we enter this metaverse, not all of it will be a brand-new world, a large part will be an old world re-imagined.

Cultural Heritage institutions are already active in digitising their collections. The European Commission recently recommended that 'by 2030, Member States are encouraged to digitise in 3D all monuments and sites deemed at risk', including the most physically-visited cultural and heritage monuments, buildings and sites.

colour photograph, cultural heritage objects being 3D scanned.

3D, therefore, is seen as a tool that we can use to create sustainable environments, to protect a fragile world and make it more accessible and immersive for those who may have difficulty visiting the many special places we have inherited from our ancestors.

EUreka3D – preparing for the future of 3D

The EUreka3D project is laying the foundations for this new 3D world.

We are creating a best practice framework for cultural heritage institutions to prepare, digitise, annotate, and store their 3D models - making them accessible for professionals, educators, and the wider public to learn and enjoy three dimensional objects in a multi-perspective experience.

colour photograph, a man digitising an object in front of a green screen.

Don't you think this three-dimensional business can go too far?

In answering the question of the 1953 Punch Magazine cartoon, we, therefore, need to approach 3D beyond simplistic entertainment value.

It is safe to say that a life constrained to a virtual 3D world will not be as fulfilling as the real world, but a life without 3D might leave many parts of the real world vulnerable to loss.

illustration showing progress from a photograph to 3D model of a church.

When you work in cultural heritage, the missing pieces are always gaping.

Fragments of text which mention something incredible that is never to be seen. A fading photograph which captures a single moment which doesn’t say who, what, where, when… why? A crackling audio tape which records an unknown voice in an unknown place.

Three-dimensional digitisation adds more, at least in a visual sense, to the valuable historical record and for the objects and sites that sit in a physically challenging and changing environment, we may only have one small window to preserve it.

By enabling and expanding the capacity to digitise in three-dimensions, we may finally be ready for the world to embrace 3D, and not let go.

This blog is part of the EUreka3D project, which aims to build the capacity of small cultural heritage institutions in digital transformation, particularly on issues related to 3D digitisation.