Many disciplines in the humanities such as Archaeology, Anthropology, Art History, Heritage studies, Architectural History and Conservation, deal with visual or material culture from the past and present. Because of the central role of objects in these disciplines, there has always been a need for techniques for visual documentation, visual analysis and representation. Traditionally photography and 2D drawing methods were used, and have been fundamental to the development of disciplines and the dissemination of new ideas. 3D technologies were added to these techniques in the 1980s, and as technology keeps advancing and the user base grows, their importance and relevance has only increased.
What is 3D visualization?
3D visualization is a very general term which includes many different things. Most people probably associate it with computer games and special effects in movies, or with virtual reality. However, 3D visualization is also used throughout the sciences, from 3D plots representing mathematical formulas or representations sub-atomic physical principles to medical imaging techniques visualizing the location of illnesses in the body. In the humanities, 3D visualization usually involves real world objects or settings that play some role in human culture: a ceramic vessel, a piece of art, a building, or a landscape.
How is it used in academic research?
A 3D visualization can have different functions:
- As a representation of what is documented
- To illustrate an idea or hypothesis
- As a visual modelling tool to guide the research process
- As a way of vision enhancement
As a representation and illustration
As a visual modelling tool
In 3D we can, moreover, experience spatial relations, which can give better insight in how these buildings functioned socially, or experientially.
3D visualization and modelling is thus a way to interact with the subject of study, and allows the researcher to experiment freely with it, eliciting new insights or discoveries. The process is thus akin to experimental archaeology, the archaeological sub discipline that attempts to reconstruct objects and practices by carrying them out in reality.
As a way of vision enhancement
3D visualization is often applied on objects and landscapes as a way to enhance vision. Changing the visualization of light or surfaces of 3D scanned objects, without changing or adding anything to the geometry, can clarify hard to discern details, or even discover new features. And moving to a larger scale, recent research into historic landscapes has recently been given a tremendous boost by the visual analysis of 3D lidar1 data, which has been used to document archaeological sites and landscapes around the world with a speed and precision that was unimaginable 20 years ago.