Reflections from DigiDoc2018
9th to 12th October, 2018, DigiDoc2018 was held at The Engine Shed, Scotland’s building conservation centre. The three-day conference brought together professionals from all over the world using digital technology to document historic buildings and artefacts. We expected to see (and did) lots of laser scanning/point clouds, photogrammetry and VR headsets, but we got so much more information and inspiration than we expected. A very worthwhile few days.
Why attend DigiDoc?
We have a strong interest in Scottish heritage and architecture. We think the models we make as aids for stakeholder engagement for engineering and architecture, could be just as effective at engaging audiences for heritage. So we were keen to use this conference as an opportunity to learn about the needs and requirements of the heritage sector and also meet and speak to some of those involved. Seeing Bob Marshall, who produces stunning historical illustrations, was on the running order, was all the excuse we needed to book our tickets. Bob uses Blender, the same software we use for 3d modelling for his illustrations and we have been long-term fans of his work. Bob’s attention to detail and mastery of his tools sets the sort of example we aspire to.
We also hoped to address some key questions we had on how to approach heritage projects. How to balance the accuracy needed to authentically represent historical buildings and artefacts, with the practical compromises often needed to make a scale (or even a 1:1) model?
Who was there?
Looking around at who else was attending, there were lots of academics, architectural historians, archaeologists, museum curators, a host of preservation specialists and even the odd biologist and palaeontologist. Mixing with these, an impressive array of leading experts and innovators in CGI, VR visualisation, scanning, technical photography, illustrative arts, storytellers and educators.
Much of the content was jaw-dropping and inspirational, and I’m not easily impressed by computer graphics. I am impressed with deep technical knowledge, skill, attention to detail or an ambitious goal and folks with a passion for what they do. That was evident in spades.
Leading experts in their fields were there from all over the world. From Bob Marshall’s recent work published in a new book: Windsor Castle: 1,000 Years of a Royal Palace, insights from the Smithsonian on digitising their massive collections. Similar from Fang Li Yu, a senior engineer working on a multi-year project documenting the Forbidden City in Beijing in both 3d and 2d.
Using 3d printing in the reconstruction of historical musical instruments (Mario Klingemann, Google). Some impressive equipment to automate the digitisation process of both 2d and 3d objects, one involving a conveyor belt system that had lots of curators asking searching questions about the safety of their artefacts (Pedro Santos, Fraunhofer Institute).
It was also good to hear that the recently destroyed Glasgow School of Art building was one of the best documented (and scanned) heritage assets we have. Hopefully, that means something useful and authentic can be preserved for future generations.
We also enjoyed the session with Thomas Flynn from Sketchfab who reminded us about the API interface allowing direct access to functionality from code. The ongoing lack of a standard way to view and access 3d assets over the Web is a topic that came up in several discussions. We will certainly be taking a fresh look at the current status of Sketchfab.
Multiple, interesting sessions explored the use of VR headsets to engage audiences and tell a story. Some innovative ways to make VR a more collective rather than a solo experience. Notably, Martin McDonnell, Soluis showed off their stunning use of planetarium domes and movie-quality visualisations in some of their recent high-end projects.
Computer graphics for serious purposes
The movie industry was well represented with jaw-dropping visuals and presentation on immersive storytelling from Atlantic Productions and Tippet Studio. The gaming industry, not to be left out, sent Maxime Durand, Ubisoft, who explained his role as the franchise historian for Assassin’s Creed.
We also had a passionate presentation on the role of digital and heritage topics in education from Jenni MacKay from Dundee City Council.
A call for responsible 3d printing
The most shocking example of the potential problems in the reckless use of 3d printing came in the closing remarks by Professor David Mitchell, Director of Conservation at HES. An image of a carved stone panel where the missing head of a cherub had been 3d printed in bright yellow plastic and stuck onto the panel. The audience (including me) visibly winced. Fortunately, he also had some positive examples, including a 1:1 scale 3d printed column head used as a template for stonemasons.
There were many other fascinating speakers I have not mentioned. I’ll keep an eye out for an official write-up and update this post with a link when available.
The importance of data provenance. The event underlined our prior view that accurately capturing data and measurements of heritage sites is properly the domain of trained surveyors. Accordingly, we have no immediate plans to get involved with scanning. However, having obtained their data, lots of heritage organisations are struggling to make best use of it to engage their audiences. In that context our services could produce usable 3d models (for 3d print or visualisation) derived from the master data.
Common to many industrties, there is an explosion in the volume of data to manage. It was encouraging to see BIM principles being adopted within Historic Environment Scotland for the historic buildings under their care. There are many data management challenges for heritage that sounded familiar from our time working in Oil and Gas and it was interesting to hear the discussions searching for frameworks and platforms to address data management. I suspect suitable frameworks already exist in different industries and sectors.
Filling in the blanks
Whether the challenge is creating a stylised illustration, a photorealistic movie sequence or a scale or 1:1 model, there are a ton of choices to be made and likely data gaps filled during the process. Working these issues needs to involve expert guidance to ensure the historical accuracy and authenticity of the result.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
There were some interesting questions raised about the validity of filling in damaged areas of artefacts using 3d printing or some other reconstructive techniques. Sometimes the damage itself tells an important story about the history of the artefact. We note that there was no definitive answer offered, underlining again the need to seek expert guidance.
There is a lot being done with VR and AR. Several speakers underlined our view that while undoubtedly immersive, these can be solitary experiences. We saw some impressive (but expensive looking) dome solutions for groups of people. It seems to us that scale models and replica artefacts may have a useful place augmenting other approaches to tell stories and engage audiences.
The conference far exceeded our expectations. Perhaps coming from a corporate IT background, I am just not used to so much glitz and glamour associated with highly technical topics. Although I got some answers to the questions I arrived with, the conference planted many more new questions and quite a few new ideas we look forward to exploring in the coming months.