Virtual and Smart Replicas – What can they do for Heritage?

If we could make 3D printed replicas of our collections, what could we use them for? Could we make them ‘smart’ and respond to the way visitors handle and explore them? And what about recontextualising virtual replicas, what happens when we (virtually) place them back into their original environment?

The Allard Pierson Museum is part of two research projects, one of which is meSch, that aim to answer some of the questions raised above. One of the goals of the meSch project  is to create smart replicas of museum objects that provide information or an experience in response to the way visitors handle them. The Allard Pierson Museum hosted a Virtual Museum Meetup to discuss the potential of Virtual and Smart Objects for museum exhibits.

The Etruscanning interactive at the Allard Pierson Museum, using virtually restored 3D models of museum objects. (picture: Allard Pierson Museum/ Christie. A. Ray

Etruscanning at the Allard Pierson Museum, using virtually restored 3D models of museum objects.
(photo: Allard Pierson Museum/ Christie. A. Ray)

3D Models

Over the past few years it has become possible to create virtual 3D replicas of museum objects. We could even create a virtually restored version of a damaged object, to help visitors understand what it looked like when it was first made. 3D models have made it possible to virtually re-contextualize an object, placing it in different environments, taking it out of the museum’s context-less ‘white cube’. Although scanning, rendering and post-processing can be costly, several parties are trying to create more affordable services and it might be a matter of time before creating high-quality virtual 3D replicas will come within reach for most museums.


The practical use of 3D Models

When making virtual replicas, one of the challenges is creating workable files. Often virtual models consist of big files and heavy formats that are not optimized for downloading or use on tablets and smart phones. Many companies are trying to solve these issues, as well as questions like: How do we scan very big objects, or really small ones? The London-based Science Museum was able to collaborate with University College London and ScanLAB Projects, who were in search of a test case as part of the 3D scanning and modeling research. The result is a stunning 3D scan of an entire museum gallery and undoubtedly valuable experience for all parties involved.

Although the scan looks impressive, to say the least, during the meetup questions were raised about the relevance of a virtual gallery, either online or in the museum, for a wider audience. Surely, researchers would jump at the chance to examine the objects, but would this be interesting for a family with children, a group of friends on a day out or somebody who is ‘only’ generally interested in your museum’s topic?


The added value of online virtual models

Before the meetup Titus Kretzschmar, Technical Project Leader at Naturalis, shared a link to the 3D scanning project of the Smithsonian. Being one of the biggest museums in the world, it’s resources cannot be compared to those of most other museums, but it is interesting to note how they, at the core of things, are struggling with the same questions, like: What can we use these models for? On their website, which is currently in beta, they share models of some of their objects, as well as informative ‘tours’ of the objects. There is also some background information about the project itself and its goals.

Another question that does not have a definitive answer is: Which objects benefit from having a virtual replica? As the Smithsonian makes very clear, scanning an entire collection is simply not an option, due to the sheer numbers involved.

In the Meetup, the idea of ‘value for effort’ was mentioned several times. Using a virtual replica should create a real added value for the visitor experience. In fact, when considering physical object replicas, this requirement of added value is usually a given. Unfortunately, when it comes to new digital opportunities it can be hard not to get carried away by theoretical potential.


Image of 3D printed objects.

3D printed objects from Just Make, the 3D printing pop-up shop in Madrid
(photo: Lisa George for Ultra-lab)

The physical qualities of replicas

This brought the conversation to the subject of smart replicas. These are real, physical, object replicas that can generate content, or influence what type of content a visitor is provided with, based on the way the visitor holds or handles the replica. With regards to tangible replicas, be they smart or ‘dumb’, the subjects of authenticity and reproduction quality were discussed. What does it mean to hold a replica of an object in your hands? Does it matter if it’s made of 3D printed plastic. Most agreed that yes, it does matter. Although some argued that by no means the replica had to be identical to the original. Visible differences can guide visitors as to which objects are real and which ones can be touched, used or worn. Somebody brought up the example of a replica dress at the Wonderkamers of the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague. Although this dress was visually very different than the original, it was made of plain materials instead of colorful fabrics, it did resemble the original in certain physical aspects. For example, it was heavy and difficult to wear, like the original would have been. Visitors could get an idea of what it must have been like to wear a dress like that, to move around in it, to sit or stand while wearing it.

It could be said, therefore, that the physical qualities of the smart replica should be in line with the goals of the replica itself. Do we want people to feel its weight? Than it should be the same as the original. Are we using a replica to let people feel the texture of materials? In that case the texture should be as close to that of the original as possible. And if we want visitors to admire the craftsmanship that had gone into making the original, than surely the replica should reflect this.


Linking content to Smart Replicas

If we know how to embed sensors into object replicas and we could make these replicas smart, or responsive, then what would we like them to do? Should they inform visitors about their use, should they start talking, buzzing, or moving? Should they trigger sounds, images or text nearby? Last year Studio Maaike Roozenburg gave a presentation at the Allard Pierson Museum about their ongoing work with Smart Replicas. The project is ongoing and at the moment tests are being carried out to better understand how content can be linked to the replica. In this case, the extra content is provided through the use of Augmented Reality, which is loaded on the user’s Smartphone or tablet. A different example of the potential of smart replicas is Virtex (PDF). This (enlarged) replica of a small ivory object triggers the delivery of information on a screen nearby, based on the way it is handled and touched. If visitors touch a certain part of the replica, more information about that section is revealed. One of the questions that arose based on this example is: how do we help visitors understand how the replica can be used? Explaining the use of so-called ‘intuitive’ interfaces in the museum context, be they based on motion or touch, has proved to be a tremendous challenge so far.


Matching design and use

In general, it was thought that smart replicas would probably work best if they were based on real objects that invited touch, use or interaction through their physical design. In other words, smart replicas of tools and utensils might be successful. Although no clear consensus was reached on how the smart replica should respond to be being held, handled and explored.

What do you think? How could Virtual and Smart Replicas be used in the museum environment? What could be their purpose and when would their presence truly enhance the visitor experience?


About this Meetup

This event was organized by the Virtual Museum Network Amsterdam and hosted by the Allard Pierson Museum on May 27, 2014. Meetups take place regularly and are open to everyone who becomes a member of the Meetup group. Feel free to join in next time! This blog post is an edited version of a summary of the event that appeared on the Virtual Museum Network Amsterdam Meetup page.

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