Beyond Visuals: Using 3D Modeling as an Analytic Tool
August 22nd, 2016 | Natasha Englehardt
One of the most commonly cited benefits of 3D modeling is the ability to visualize anything in three dimensions. However, this is just one of the uses of 3D modeling. This technology is also a powerful analytical tool. Here are some of the most interesting facts about using 3D modeling as an analytical tool as shown by the fields of nonproliferation studies and archaeology.
3D modeling as analytical exercise: The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) routinely uses 3D modeling to create exciting visuals to engage members of the public and build interest in their mission. However, they also use 3D modeling to run analytic exercises.
The 3D modeling process forces anyone using it to think about the ways that different objects exist in space instead of seeing them as lists of features or characteristics. 3D modeling forces the user to see how objects fit together based on their relative size, features, and position in space. Making this happen is a learning process that imparts far more information than rote memorization.
Users can also use 3D modeling to solve problems. At CNS analysts often build models of weapons based on whatever limited information they have in order to better understand them. Using a limited number of specifications and seeing how they fit together helps them build models that work (or don’t) through trial and error. This analytical process teaches participants far more about weapons and weapons systems than just reading about them.
3D modeling and archaeology: new analytical tools for studying the past
Originally archaeologists were using 3D modeling for simple visualization on projects, but this has changed significantly in recent times. Now, archaeologists believe that there are at least four important ways that 3D modeling can be used to as an analytical tool to benefit practical archaeology.
Field archaeologists need to document and disseminate spatial data as a matter of course. Traditionally this meant creating hand-drawn maps of sites and their features, which takes extensive time and a specific skill set which not all archaeologists possess. The end product is typically digitized as well, so a map which is digital from the start, more accurate, and easier to produce is a tremendous benefit. This also opens up this area of field practice to all archaeologists and allows them to engage in this area of analysis.
Field recording and volumetrics
As archaeologists work on excavations they must document their finds. Classical techniques are all on paper, but this means using 2D based methods to document 3D findings. Ideally any documentation system would need to be spatially accurate, photorealistic, updatable, and able to store excavated data in a 3D environment that allows for the examination of spatial relationships and the calculation of volumes.
There is not yet specific software that can do all of these things for archaeologists working in the field. However, experts agree that because most image-based 3D model software packages have the right features and permit volume and area calculations, 3D modeling is the ideal basis for such a 3D excavation recording system.
Part of archaeological practice is object analysis, which in the past has relied on either direct access to fragile physical objects or 2D written descriptions of them. Now, high-fidelity 3D digital artifacts and 3D printed facsimiles can be used by archaeologists to promote scholarly analysis and collaboration without risking artifact deterioration.
Archaeologists are at the forefront of digital preservation, and creating 3D models is an important part of this process. Digital records are resilient, transferable, duplicable, and affordable. They can also be altered by analysts without doing harm to the originals or the historical record. 3D models can also be used as references for specialists working to restore artifacts.
The examples of nonproliferation studies and archaeology provide some fascinating examples of how 3D modeling goes far beyond visualization, offering useful analytic tools for day to day practice. These kinds of uses of 3D modeling are going to be critical to these fields as they progress into the future, opening them up to more practitioners all over the world, and improving the results attained in the field and laboratory every day. As the world learns more about 3D modeling and its many uses, understanding the technology as a source of analytic tools as well as visuals, we will see more and more of these applied uses of the technology.