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Tools & Resources for Dimensional Projects

The tools needed to acquire and process content for a dimensional project will be very different if you’re starting by making a digital version of an extant object using photographic processes.

Published onOct 14, 2019
Tools & Resources for Dimensional Projects

The tools needed to acquire and process content for a dimensional project will be very different if you’re starting by making a digital version of an extant object using photographic processes, or if you’re building a digital model by translating measurements, archaeological content, or other forms of data into a dimensional form. At the other end of the process, you will want to consider the tools and resources needed to view or interact with your project. For many dimensional projects, you should be aware of the equipment or programs that are necessary to experience the end result. The need for tools like 3d printers, virtual reality headsets, or special applications to manipulate digital models should be considered as you plan.

For photogrammetry, where you make a dimensional model by stitching together photos taken from all angles of your subject, you need:

  • A camera. For most models, you will be fine with a basic consumer-grade dSLR camera, which you may already own or be able to borrow. In a pinch, you can even use the camera on a recent-model smartphone: you just need manual control over the focus, aperture, and white balance. If this isn’t part of your default camera application, you can download a camera app that gives you this kind of feature.

  • A tripod.

  • For objects, a light tent and turntable.

  • For buildings, a drone with attachment for a camera or another means of taking photos from a high angle (like scaffolding). Remember that you can only model things that are in the photograph; the software does not have a way to make assumptions about the way architectural elements connect.

  • An application like Metashape (Windows, Mac, Linux) or 3DFZephyr (Windows only) to process the photos into a model.

It is possible that you also may need a computer with a higher-quality video card or more processing power for very large or very detailed models, but most models of individual objects or standard-sized structures can run on a recent desktop machine. This can take several hours or longer, however, so you may want to dedicate a computer to this and not use your primary work computer.

If you run into difficulty with photogrammetry, there are several forums online where you can post a question and get help, like the Cultural Heritage Imaging group’s topic on photogrammetry, or the photogrammetry topic forum on Sketchfab.

To build a 3d model without beginning with photos, you will not need any physical equipment other than a relatively recent desktop computer with good graphics processing and a video card. As with photogrammetry, rendering a model can take a lot of your computer’s processing power, so you probably want to set up a computer that you won’t need for other work while your model renders. If you are building detailed models, making an animated model, or working with very detailed structures, it might be worth seeking out a computer like those that are optimized for gaming. Computers designed for gaming are set up to take care of the same kinds of processing that models use.

You will also need to select a software package for your model. Many of these are free for educational or other limited uses, and you can almost always get a free trial to see whether the software is appropriate for your needs. There are two basic processes for this kind of modeling that are frequently used in digital humanities projects, with multiple software options for each that allow different kinds of data to be incorporated.

  • The solid modeling process, with variations like parametric or feature-based modeling, is the basis for a lot of computer-aided drafting, architectural structures, engineering, and making prototypes of objects. This is a good process to use if you have a lot of regular geometry in the thing you want to model and you know the angles and distances between different parts of the structure (the measurements can be relative rather than absolute). This is also the best process to use for objects if you are primarily interested in structural or functional aspects of an object rather than the visible features of the surface. The term “solid modeling” does not mean that you can’t model hollow objects, but rather that your interest is in the physical components that make up your subject.
    If you are modeling buildings, a program like Sketchup can be sufficient, in either the free or pro versions. If you need more advanced architectural options, especially if you need to take into account elements like support structures, you may find a program like AutoCAD necessary.

If you are modeling an object, Fusion360 (which has a free version for educational use) or Solidworks are good choices.

  • To model something with a focus on visible or tactile qualities, like how your subject interacts with light, you will need an application optimized for surface modeling. Applications like Maya, Blender, or 3DS Max are used to develop the kinds of 3d models used in the creation of photorealistic animation, like video games and movies. While they are often used for artistic purposes, they can be used in very precise ways to replicate materials, surface colors, and complex object shapes based on measured physical qualities like the way different types of textiles move or different metallic surfaces reflect light. This can be especially helpful if you’re interested in issues like natural or artificial lighting of objects or buildings, flexible materials, or wear/damage. While basic measurements are important to have in this process, you will also find it necessary to have information about the materials used to create your subject, and your model will be more accurate if this information is relatively detailed (for example, the alloy type of metal, the thread count and fiber type of fabric, the precise colors of paint).

Finally, there are the tools that you will need to interact with or present your model. All of the programs listed earlier in this topic, for all of the project pathways, have some sort of built-in means for the model’s creator to inspect the final model and to export basic snapshot images of the model. This can be all you need if your research questions are answered through the process of creating the model, if you will be exporting your model for use directly in a tool like ArcGIS or Google Earth, or if you just need static views for a traditional publication.

If you need additional features, and especially if you want to create a model that a wider audience can view or manipulate, you may need additional tools or applications.

You can create an animation to show your model being manipulated or rotated using built-in tools in Maya, Fusion360, and many other modeling tools. A basic level of animation capability is also available in Photoscan Pro. In general, the most advanced built-in features for animation and video creation are in the tools that were designed for the creation of animated movies and games, like Maya and Blender. However, there are many free tools described in the narrative projects section for making movies, to edit animated videos, to add narration, or to combine your animated model with other content.

If you want to print a 3d model from your digital project, you will need to export your 3d model in a form suitable for printing (usually STL or OBJ). Many modeling programs, including Fusion360, Sketchup, and Blender, allow you to export your file in this format. If you have created your model in a different program you may be able to export your model into one of these applications first. In addition to a modeling application that allows you to export the appropriate file type, you need a way to actually print your model!

A growing number of academic institutions, libraries, and makerspaces have access to basic 3d printers, which are good for small models (under a foot or so in each dimension) made in plastic-like substances. These institutional resources are often good sources for classes, tutorials, and basic troubleshooting. Even some office-service stores, like UPS, have on-site 3d scanning and printing available. Very basic 3d printers are dropping in price, and it is possible to purchase one for under $500, but unless you need to be able to print onsite frequently, this is probably not worth it. The cost rises for higher quality printers and the setup and maintenance can be time consuming. There are also online services like Shapeways, which will print and mail you a 3d version of your model. If you’re new to 3d printing, this can be a frustrating process, as you won’t be able to experiment and modify your model as quickly.

If you want to embed a virtual model in another place, like a website, standalone document, or a presentation for a conference or class, you’re in luck! This has gotten much easier. Adobe Acrobat Pro allows you to embed working 3d models in pdfs, and Microsoft and several other programs allow you to embed 3d models in powerpoints and text documents. These programs only accept certain file types, though, so you may need to find a file converter that can change the file type of your model if the application you create it in doesn’t have support for those formats. In some cases, support for these features is only in Windows- or Mac-based versions of the applications, so you will want to make sure you check the features that are available on your platform.

If you just need the model online and you can either send users to a specific url or embed it in your webpage using an iframe, you can upload the model to Sketchup’s 3D Warehouse. This is usually the easiest route, especially if there are no privacy concerns and the file size of the model is not too big. For many website platforms like Wordpress and Omeka, there are also plugins or widgets available to display 3d models. As with documents and presentations, the file types supported are limited. If you have your own custom website, or if your platform doesn’t have this type of plugin, you can use javascript to display your model. Javascript libraries like Three.js will make this process easier.

If you want to use your model in a virtual reality project, you may need additional resources. Remember to consider the tools or applications that your audience will need to view your model properly, as these may not be widely available and can be very expensive.

You will need an application that can help convert your model into a virtual or augmented reality environment. All of these options will give you a way to look around your model and manipulate it using controls that are suitable for different types of viewing headsets or browser options.

  • Sketchfab has a built-in way to view your model in a virtual reality system using standard headsets or widely available applications for phones, and also has a desktop viewing mode. If you are already using Sketchfab to host your model, this is a really easy way to make a quick VR or AR version.

  • is another good tool for building a virtual reality scene that will work in a web browser or on VR headsets. It is a free, open-source web framework that uses javascript to make it easier to build a VR scene. Think of it as a template for making your scene: you will need to understand some basic things about html and javascript, but you don’t need to be a programmer. It also has lots of experienced users who answer questions on online forums, as well as great instructional documentation and examples of existing projects. You might prefer this to Sketchfab if you want to host the model on your own website, if you need to make modifications that aren’t allowed in Sketchfab, you need a free solution, or you’re concerned about privacy or permissions issues.

  • If you need to embed your model in a complex environment, or you want to combine multiple models into a larger experience, you may need to consider using a gaming engine like Unreal or Unity. These programs give you a lot more options for both the set up of the VR environment and how the user will interact with the model beyond moving the model or moving the viewer’s position in the scene. However, they are much more difficult to learn and making scenes in them will take a lot longer even when you know what you’re doing.

You should also consider whether you will need to provide tools for your users to view this model, and you will want to make sure you test your project using the same kind of hardware as you expect your end users to have. There is a wide range of options to consider. At the cheap end, Google Cardboard headsets are simple frame that allow users to attach their smartphones to a standard frame and use an app to view the VR model. These typically let you view the scene from a single point, but the depth and angles will appear in 3d, and the scene will change as you look around or pivot. More advanced headsets include models like the Oculus Rift or Go or the HTC VIVE. These have higher resolution, but they also add functionality like being able to walk around in a virtual space or have other types of interactivity through hand controls. Most virtual reality models can also be viewed on a computer or phone using either a special app or a browser. These have very limited functions, but they’re good for getting a 3d view of something.

Continue Reading: Teams & Expertise for Dimensional Projects

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