Digital 3D modelling in the humanities

Sander Münster (, TU Dresden, Germany

For more than 30 years, digital 3D modelling and in particular reconstruction methods have been widely used to support research and education in the digital humanities, especially but not exclusively on historical architecture. While technological backgrounds, project opportunities, and methodological considerations for the application of digital 3D modeling techniques are widely discussed in literature (e.g. Arnold and Geser, 2008, European Commission, 2011, Frischer, 2008, Bentkowska-Kafel et al., 2012, Bentkowska-Kafel, 2013, Kohle, 2013), my interest is to investigate digital 3D modeling in the humanities as a scholarly area and to derive implications for further organizational and methodical development. Against this background, my research investigates the following research questions:

What marks a scholarly culture of 3D modelling in the humanities?

What are technical and designal implications and workflows for model creation and presentation?

How can digital 3D modelling techniques be learned and taught?

The research presented is part of an ongoing post doc thesis work dedicated to draw a “big picture” on digital 3D modelling techniques as research tools in the humanities. Against this background, my own and my department’s activities include to investigate (1) a scholarly community, (2) usage practices occurring within single projects and to gain implications for further methodical development. We develop (4) technologies and workflows to enhance both, the creation of 3D models and user-centered interfaces and investigate how 3D models are (5) perceived and how 3D modeling techniques can be used in (6) education (Table 1). Research has been carried out since 2010 in 12 projects on local, national and EU level so far.

Table 1 – Investigational parts
AreaResearch InterestInvestigation



Who are main authors?

What are academic structures?

[A] Social network (c.f. Wellman, 1988) and bibliometric analysis (c.f. De Solla Price, 1963) of publications from major conferences in the field of digital cultural heritage 1990-2015 (n=3917)
What are topics?[B] Automated topic mining of 3917 articles, manual classification of 452 articles plus 26 project reports via qualitative content analysis (c.f. Mayring, 2000)
Who funds projects?[C] Qualitative content analysis of 518 project activities in the field of digital cultural heritage including
What marks a disciplinary culture?[D] Three stage investigation including a questionnaire-based survey during three workshops with 44 participants to gain a general overview; 15 guideline based interviews with researchers to investigate research culture in depth (Mieg and Näf, 2005, Gläser and Laudel, 2009); online survey with 988 participant to quantify findings



What are phenomena and strategies for cooperation?[E] 4 case studies: Data collection via expert interviews (c.f. Gläser and Laudel, 2009) and observation (c.f. Lamnek, 2005). Data analysis via heuristic frameworks (c.f. Kubicek, 1977) and grounded theory (c.f. Bryant and Charmaz, 2010)
How to support cooperation in 3D modelling projects?[F] Employment and evaluation of SCRUM as agile project management approach (Schwaber, 2004) in 2 educational project seminars so far with 13 student teams
Methodological developmentWhat are current challenges?[G] Three group discussions (c.f. Lamnek, 2005) on workshops at national/international conferences (~60 participants) to examine; online survey with 650 participants
How to systematize?[H] Classification scheme developed and applied for 8 projects yet
TechnologiesHow to create 3D models?[I] Development of workflows and toolsets to automatically create 3D models from historic photos [removed for reviewing], and semi-automatic creation from GIS data [removed for reviewing]
How to improve user interaction with 3D models?[J] Development and testing of 4D geo browsers; browser-based augmented and virtual reality interfaces for mobile devices
PerceptionWhat factors are influencing perception of 3D models?[K] 2 expert workshops and literature survey yet to identify influencing factors
How are virtually represented structures perceived?[L] Two studies to investigate how virtually represented structures and proportions are perceived, involving 21 persons and using usability testing (c.f. Nielsen, 1993)
EducationHow to use 3D modelling techniques in education?[M] 3 student seminars to develop and test team project-based learning approaches via formative & summative assessment (c.f. Dumit, 2012)

Some results at a glance

What are some results at a glance? Considering a scholarly community on digital 3D reconstruction and modeling, discourses on major conferences during the last 25 years were mainly led by institutions from European Mediterranean countries, covering primarily technological topics. Especially statues and buildings in Mediterranean countries dating from all periods Anno Domini deliver rich content for such reconstruction.

Due to the high complexity and team-based workflows, aspects and usage practices for communication, cooperation, and quality management are of high relevance within 3D reconstruction projects. Especially if people with different disciplinary backgrounds are involved, visual media are intensively used to foster communication and quality negotiations, for example by comparing source images and renderings of the created virtual reconstruction. Furthermore, several projects successfully adopted highly standardized conventions from architectural drawings for interdisciplinary exchange. To support a methodological development I ran five workshops to identify prospects and demands for further development, involving around 60 researchers and an online survey to verify findings from these workshops. Costs and training were named most frequently as currently pressuring issues. With regards to technologies, a big hurdle to overcome in order to use augmented and virtual reality is the current need to download and install additional software. Since current browser generations allow the visualization of 3D content natively, our focus is on user-friendly interaction concepts to access both, visualizations and underlaying informations. Regarding the perception of virtual 3D models relatively little visual information is needed to allow observers to distinguish buildings from each other or to identify a single building and to gain information about its spatial relation and shape [removed for reviewing]. Moreover, we adopted and evaluated team project-based learning approaches to support student education in digital 3D reconstruction. As observed in two courses so far, a development of procedures and strategies for cooperation within student project teams for creating virtual representations evolves slowly, and mostly as reaction of upcoming problems and demands. Related competencies are based highly on implicit knowledge and experience. As consequence, a teaching of best practices prior to a project work is less effective than coaching during the project work.

Next steps

What are next steps? Since 3D models in the humanities are primarily accessed via visualizations, a toolset for assessing visualization and interactivity of 3D models and presentations is currently missing and will be in focus of a next research stage. Many of the already completed investigations are of qualitative nature or focus on particular aspects. Consequently, a further validation for adjacent aspects as well as a verification of findings are alltime tasks. To proceed, further investigations on the scholarly use of 3D models and historical photographs or the design of interfaces for virtual museums are under development as well as a survey to further investigate challenges and perspectives of 3D modeling. Since the research is intended to enhance the validation and dissemination of 3D modeling technologies in the humanities both, education and organizational development are key issues. Beside the further development and establishment of teaching concepts and university courses, especially strategies for self-driven and scalable learning as MOOCs or open educational resources seems promising. Finally, beneficial and methodologically grounded best practice examples, an institutionalization of chairs and institutes as well as an increased awareness seem to be crucial for a further organizational establishment.

Appendix A

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