Recently, I attended a training workshop on 3D Modeling and Environments put on by the Digital Humanities Studio at the University of Iowa. This workshop focused on the creation of 3D objects using Autodesk 3ds Max. Though one of many programs currently on the market, this one has become accepted as the industry standard for its range of tools and overall flexibility for object creation. This training was my first encounter with these types of projects and made me think about some of the hidden challenges outside the technical literacy.These tools are incredible and daunting, and open to an enormous range of interpretation, such that the balance between accuracy and technological beauty is hard to achieve.
One of the huge benefits of this program is the ability to create 3D printed representations of cultural heritage items or to present 3d environments of heritage sites. The unusual nature of these objects as a representation of scholarly research are two-fold to me. The first is the “ease” with which we can reimagine long held understandings of highly damaged cultural objects by rendering them into a 3D environment, using the body of research that surrounds its context. The dangers of overly applying such details as textures and lighting can drastically change the accurate representation of an object, divorcing from the original goals of accurate representation. Subjective choices about cosmetic details are not nearly as important as appropriate scale and context. However thrilling these creations are, contextual grounding is needed to gain the insights that these objects can produce. Obviously, carefully constructed environments can avoid this issue and lead to invaluable insight and understanding amongst a larger population.
The second challenge is more philosophical than technical. Since most 3D printed objects, especially those of cultural heritage objects, are made of plastics that are not decomposable. As a result, archaeological objects in their 3D represented forms can return to the archaeological record in their own right. This degree of meta-object is not a concern now for digital humanists but is rather an amusing intellectual exercise worth considering later.
Despite the considerations outlined above, 3D models and environments are a pedagogical and representational tool that requires advanced technical and contextual understanding to be effective. I, though intrigued by these ideas, find them daunting for a single scholar and can only encourage teams of people to approach these issues. Once a sufficient knowledge of Autodesk 3ds Max (or any of its open source counterparts) is acquired, the chances to visualize environments is quite exciting. An idea that has grown on me in the time since, however, solves the contextual concerns I described earlier. By using certain mapping techniques, 3D creations could become part of a much larger system, which may be an ambitious dream for the scale of most digital humanities projects.
3D models could grow in a wide number of ways. I'm sure that the questions I've outlined above are thought about by those who work daily with 3D environments. As it grows to be a bigger part of mainstream humanities, I'm curious how best practices will be dictated to ensure accurate depictions.