Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby

Providing a historian with the capability to examine an artifact in 3d introduces both opportunities and challenges.  It is sometimes said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so does it follow then that a 3d image is worth 10003?  That’s a lot of words.  Clearly, a 3d image enables us to see all sides of an object rather than just one.  And if the object is situated in a familiar context, we can sense the size of the object.  As well, the ability to engage with the object and to manipulate it at one’s own speed – and to examine the details at one’s own pace – makes the experience of it more personal.  This might be comparable to looking at a sculpture in a gallery in person vs. looking at someone else’s video of a sculpture in a gallery.

But there are still epistemological considerations about the experiencing of objects that cannot be replicated even with sophisticated 3d tools.  For example, the viewer doesn’t get a sense of the weight or feel of an object.  Nor do they experience its smell.  It would be easy enough to add sound (of some sort), but would there be a way of making the sound connect to the motion of the object?  Would it rattle in the right way?  Would the clapper inside the bell sound at appropriate times that match with the viewer/user’s motions?  No doubt with time and effort, this could be achieved if there were a market for that sort of thing.  As well, lots of objects are not inanimate.  A person.  An animal.  A tree.  Seemingly what we gain in dimensions, we lose in motion.  This is not 3d video.

However, these 3d objects are not being sold as clones but rather as models.  As such, they can be printed with a 3d printer, to scale, and thus provide precise copies of shapes.  An article I read recently in the Globe and Mail (Canada) talked about using this capability to produce prosthetic limbs that would match perfectly to an amputated limb.  As well, a 3d model of something large, such as a large piece of equipment or a building, can be visualized in situ to help the “buyer” to better “see” what they will get when the product is delivered.  These tools would be quite helpful in providing a better sense of an object in its context – but not without some limitations.  City planners could show how a neighbourhood would look with a new condo tower in it, but this would not – without additional work – show if the new building would create wind tunnels, cast sun shadows, or increase traffic flow.

As Marvin Gaye wrote “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” But as models go, digital 3d models are pretty good.