April 2020: Design Document, The Key to Agile Creativity

Designing a Virtual Environment (VE) requires many decisions to be made and crisp communication between team members. As the SCAPP Bot team, we have worked on different types of projects. Short burst projects, where we had to decide and execute quickly, like the Pizza Giza and Marshmallowhenge projects that happened in the span of two weeks. Long haul projects, like the CLARC Virtual Museum, that is ever evolving with new students and new objects with stories being added as the academic year continues. In all cases, it is important to keep these decisions and visions in a central document, or the design document as we like to call it. Our design documents are inspired by game design documents used by the video game industry, but you can really adapt it to any design project. A successful design document allows team members to get to information quickly and accurately, which means less time wasted and easy onboarding of new members. In our case, we had a few steps before we got to start working on our design document.

The first step was to explain the technology to the team, so that everyone is aware of the advantages and limitations, as well as being on the same page with terminology. An example of miscommunication due to terminology is the different use of “texture” in XR and Archeology. When I was talking about textures in Unity3D, I meant textures files like the normal maps, while Alex was thinking about the archeological textures that have more properties and are also tactile rather than being just visual. For this I prepared some examples of XR projects that are related to the field of study I thought the SCAPP Bot team worked with. You could say I cheated a little, since I knew about the type of research they do for a while before getting involved. For projects where the VE development team and the subject matter experts don’t know about each other’s projects, examples are to start conversation.

Examples Video.mp4

The second step was to understand the other side. As I mentioned, I was already familiar with the type of work SCAPP Bot team was doing before, but not enough to understand their workflow. For example, I knew they 3D scanned artifacts to digitize them, but what were they going to do with these after? I wanted to understand the fundamentals; how and why they did what? An “AHA” moment for me was when Alex got excited about curating two artifacts from the same time period belonging to different countries or museums. I naively assumed if a museum asks another museum for an artifact, they simply ship it over. I only learned that it wasn’t that easy, after talking to the archeologists in the team and asking the fundamental questions like “why are you conducting your research”, “what do you do with an artifact after you find it” and “how are they studied”.

The third and final step before starting the design document, is deciding on the general idea of the VE. This is my favorite step, where dreaming big is encouraged! What would you do if you didn't have to worry about the law of physics? What would you show if you could time travel, or teleport? It is important to be able to accurately capture what the goal is in a short paragraph, similar to an elevator pitch. For the short burst projects, we had the challenge of making an historical monument with materials found at home. Since we had a short time to complete these projects, we had to keep it simple. We decided to complete the original challenge, digitize it by 3D scanning the home-made monument and create a VE where everything is realistic other than the monuments, we could even add some easter bunnies if we had time. It is more difficult to keep the goal as short when you are working on bigger, more complex projects, but by trying to get a short elevator pitch, you will also refine your ideas and goals.

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Finally, we are ready to start filling the design document. A design document can and should be different for each project. I have a general design document template but since it needs to evolve with the project, you can add or remove sections according to your project’s needs. For short bursts projects, you might not get to fill as much of the document as you would with long haul projects. In Marshmallowhenge project, we picked Stonehenge as our monument, Alex made it out of marshmallows, Ian digitized it, and I put it in Unity3D. Then we came up with the idea of adding an easter bunny, where if the user walks to the center of the Marshmallowhenge, suddenly aliens appear, and the sky turns blue; a humorous way to show the theory of Stonehenge being related to aliens. Since we didn’t have too much time, a lot of the creative design was left to me and we didn’t use the document for these types of details. For a project like the Virtual CLARC, we needed to be more detailed. Just like Marshmallowhenge, we started with a brief project description, but added a detailed description under it. Alex and Nicole found examples of different museums or curations they were impressed with, as the visual influence so that Jalon could understand what they were picturing in there heads better. We also used different methods of digitization and scaling needed to be accurate, so we created a 3D model section where we could take note of the actual dimensions of the object if we needed to. We even added an “Other Comments” section at the bottom, for questions and ideas that came to us while working on the project.

Some parts of the document are tedious work, but don’t give up! At the end your detailed design document helps team members to be on the same page, allows fast onboarding of new team members and provides easy access to what/how/why questions, making team communication fast and accurate.

-H Uzunkaya

In 1845, a British diplomat named Austen Henry Layard arrived at the site of Nineveh, then only a series of earthen mounds known to locals as the location of an ancient city. His expedition to Mesopotamia was financed by the British Museum and the goal was clear: collect as many beautiful, ancient objects as possible to line the walls of the Museum. Though his excavation methods were crude, Layard uncovered the stunning remains of the vast capital city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Among Layard’s discoveries at Nineveh was an immense collection of relief sculpture, the remnants of the very walls of the great palaces of the Neo-Assyrian kings. The reliefs were carved from gypsum and their many registers display a huge variety of subjects: portraits of kings, scenes from wars and mythology, animals and mythical beasts. The original carvings were made between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE. These wall reliefs, weighing multiple tons, were loaded onto ships bound for England. The majority of the finds from ancient Nineveh remain at the British Museum today, a lasting reminder of the colonial age of archaeology. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, countless pieces of material culture were taken from their place of origin and deposited into Western museums and collections, where many have remained to this day.

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The site of Nineveh, formally looted by Layard more than 150 years ago, continues to be threatened. In the mid-2010s, the site was occupied by ISIS extremists, who bulldozed many of the remaining architectural elements.

In 1958, the Classical Studies Artifact Research Collection (CLARC) at Brandeis acquired 7 plaster casts of the Neo-Syrian reliefs from Nineveh created from the originals at the British Museum, along with several additional casts of reliefs from the palace complex at Nimrod. Several of these are displayed in various campus buildings, others are in storage. The plaster material of all the Brandeis casts is cracked and crumbling as a result of both time and neglect. These plaster casts, which are important symbols of both the ancient history of Mesopotamia and the complex modern history of archaeology and collecting, are at risk of being lost.

Scanning the reliefs in situ , using an Artec Eva fractured light scanner.

This project seeks to preserve the casts through 3D scanning. 3D scanning is a non-invasive method for data recording in-situ. That means we are able to scan the casts without removing them from the walls and putting the delicate material at further risk. For this project, we are using an Artec Eva structured light scanner the Brandeis MakerLab. Creating 3D facsimiles of the casts gives us a greater variety of options for how we can display and study the reliefs. They can be put in virtual reality space, where students and researchers can access them from anywhere.

By 3D printing the casts, we create a durable copy of them, which will help to preserve the reliefs as the plaster continues to erode. We completed the first 3D print in February 2020, using a BigRep printer at Autodesk Technology Center in Boston to create a 1:1 copy of a cast of two lions in a garden scene from Nineveh. Beyond this, the project asks us to reflect on our own role in the movement and uprooting of cultural heritage, and considers how we can be responsible stewards of the past. As new technologies for digital imaging and 3D fabrication become available to researchers and scholars, we have an increased ability to share the past with a broader audience. We can share scans of artifacts and architecture in open-access web spaces, and distribute 3D printed artifacts as teaching tools.

- Nicole Constantine

The scanning, processing and printing of the 3D model. The printing was completed at Boston Autodesk Technology Center using a BigRep One 3D printer.

February 2021: Digital Imaging Comparative Material Study Through an Autodesk Collaboration

Parallel to the development of the SCAPP-bot at Autodesk, the Techne team is working to better understand best practice digital imaging based on artifacts of varying materials. Methodologically, this includes testing applications of photogrammetry, structured light scanning, and laser scanning on different types of material culture ranging from ceramics, metals, stone, and glass. Each application is also being evaluated to determine the best individual method for scanning these varied types of materials, this includes understanding patterning and processing.

The SCAPP-bot provided a launching point for this study. The accurate and measured datasets produced through the SCAPP photogrammetry modeling inspired an evaluation of other applications. To further this comparative testing the Brandeis Techne Group received a generous equipment loan from the Autodesk Boston Technology Center to bring the FARO Edge Laser Scanning Arm to CLARC (Classical Studies Artifact Research Collection)at Brandeis for artifact scanning. This loan provided an opportunity to conduct scan numerous different types of material culture (metal, ceramic, glass, stone, etc.) as a data-set while noting scanning processes, and evaluating several different software platforms. Alexandra Ratzlaff, Ian Roy, and Nicole Constantine set up the laser scanner in CLARC and scanned artifacts that have already been modeled through photogrammetry with the SCAPP-bot or with the Artec Eva and Spider structured light scanners. This provided a diverse dataset of artifacts imaged and modeled through multiple technologies and methodologies. In addition to testing these different technologies for best practice, the Techne group also tested several different types of software for processing. Ultimately, our group determined that the software platform 3D Systems DesignX Wrap was optimal for both scanning processing. We also found that there was a void for basic full-process from scanning through modeling of objects available as open-access online. As part of our own scanning experiment the Techne group recorded workflow instructional videos to both document our own process but to share with others interested in using the same methodology. Please see the video here of Ian Roy demonstrating the FARO laser arm in scanning an artifact and processing it in Wrap.

The FARO laser arm loan from Autodesk represents the advantages of such research and corporate partnerships. The array of equipment available to the Techne team at Autodesk allows our team to approach problem-based research with less boundaries. This project also exemplified the types of work our team is excelling at during the COVID pandemic. By designing and executing small-scale manageable projects that can be broken in into components for individual group members to execute and bring together for analysis and collaboration.

-Brandeis Classics Professor Alexandra Ratzlaff

December 2020: Faro Scan Arm and Geomagic Wrap 3D Scanning Workflow

Ian Roy works in Brandeis CLARC to 3D scan a bronze figure. Each step in the Faro 3D Scan Arm methodology is covered in this 20 minute clip recorded by Professor and CLARC Director Alexandra Ratzlaff

June 2020: Summer Project Highlights in the time of COVID

The Brandeis Techne Group would like to showcase our summer research and future projects. These short videos are also posted here on our website. We will post new videos throughout the summer and are excited for you to follow us as we explore ‘working together apart’.

Please enjoy our introductory video highlighting our current focus on exploring different methodologies in digital imaging under a variety of resource limitations. Always happy for feedback and questions! Follow us on Instagram at ‘sciencethepast’.

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