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3D Scanning, Hacking, and Printing in Art Museums, for the Masses

3D Printing. You've heard the term everywhere lately, from Popular Science magazine to tech blogs, to President Obama's State of the Union address. Advocates of this technology claim that 3D printers will revolutionize manufacturing, health care, education, design, space exploration, time travel, and countless other fields. While they may not help us travel back in time, 3D printers sure are neat, and new applications of these tools are being developed every day.

At the Met, we've been exploring ways that 3D technologies can be used by everyday visitors to enhance their museum experience.

Knowing that not everyone has a 3D printer or amazing tech skills, my team and I are focusing on tools and activities that are accessible to a wide range of people. In upcoming articles, I'll go into each area in detail, but I wanted to start by providing an overview of the software, hardware, and best practices involved in entering the wonderful world of 3D. This is just a jumping-off point. I'm really interested in what new ideas you have, so please share them!

The first step in your journey is to get a digital model to play with. Some common digital 3D file formats are STL and OBJ; these can be imported into most 3D manipulation programs. One of the easiest ways to get started is to download premade models from popular sharing sites like thingiverse.com. The Met already has more than thirty models available on our thingiverse page at http://thingiverse.com/met.

If you're visiting the Museum, it's not hard to make your own models using nothing but a digital camera and free program called 123D Catch. At the Met we allow photography in most of our galleries ("no photography" areas are clearly marked); as long as you follow the rules, this isn't a problem. Simply take pictures of the object from all sides, load it into 123D Catch, wait a few minutes, and via the magic of photogrammetry, your favorite museum art object is rendered in full 3D glory! To be fair, the process doesn't always run perfectly. In future articles, I'll demonstrate techniques for getting the best results from 123D Catch.

123D Catch turns pictures into 3D models!

Taking home a "copy" of a sculpture at the Met is exciting, but it might be even more fun to use that work as an inspiration for your own creations. Fortunately, new apps are being created and updated all the time to make that work easier for beginners. Free tools like MeshMixer let you create quick mashups of different models, for wild juxtapositions and clever contrasts. Take Leda and the Swan and Marsyas and create "Leda and the Marsyas," like Jonathan Monaghan did at the Met 3D Hackathon. Once you master the mashups you can get more technical, creating usable models like the "Boddhisattva of Infinite Pez Dispension," by Tony Buser. All of these apps have a bit of a learning curve, but in future articles I'll walk you through the basics to get started. In the meantime take a look at some MeshMixer tutorials at http://www.youtube.com/user/meshmixer.

Art Mashup made with MeshMixer

And now to the printing, where you bring your object from the digital world into the physical (sort of like Tron in reverse!). The cost of 3D printers is coming down; self-assembly kits can be found for as little as $200 (http://makibox.com). If building complex machinery from hundreds of parts is your ideal way to spend a weekend, then this is the fun and inexpensive way to go. Fully assembled printers like the Replicator 2 from MakerBot or the Cube printer from 3D Systems get closer to hassle-free operation, but if you decide to take home a printer of your very own, be prepared to spend time fussing with calibration, adjusting screws, and still having some failed prints before you get it right. To some people, all that tweaking and hacking is part of the fun. If you'd rather just get a printed model into your hands with the least amount of hassle, there are online services that will do this for you, in a variety of materials, at better quality than you're likely to get at home. Shapeways is a popular one, but Materialise and Sculpteo are also worth checking out.

I hope I've piqued your interest in 3D scanning, modeling, and printing. In the coming weeks, I'll get into some specifics and share examples of work by our own 3D volunteers. In the meantime, if you've got questions, comments, ideas, or creations of your own, please share them below!

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