By Andrea Byrnes
What is 3DPetrie?
For those readers unfamiliar with the whole concept of “digital,” in this context it simply means the representation of real-world objects in a way that can be saved to a computer. Once an item has been digitized, it can be viewed on a computer. By using the digital capacity of cameras and ever-improving 3D technologies, remarkably accurate representations can be achieved. Using different types of software, the sets of instructions that make the computer carry out specific tasks, these technologies become incredibly versatile, allowing designers to produce some remarkable interactive experiences.
The Digital Developer for the Petrie Museum, Giancarlo Amati, is involved in the 3DPetrie project , which is dedicated to the development of new ways of experiencing objects in its collections. By digitizing objects and making them available to visitors, researchers and conservators, the Petrie is looking at how best to provide visitors with a much better experience, whilst at the same time finding new ways to preserve artefacts from unnecessary handling. As digitization is only an approximation of an original it will not always replace direct handling by researchers and conservators, but it will enable initial examination and consideration of possibilities, before final handling becomes necessary. At the same time it will give museum visitors an unprecedented level of access and contact, the chance to get up close and personal with artefacts in a way that most museum visitors today never experience.
The Digital Egypt Event
Much like most of the visitors to the Museums of the Future event on the 16th February I had very little idea of what to expect when I arrived at 12.00 to assist visitors with the interactive displays. With six interactive experiences to work through it was a good opportunity not only to learn about future directions in museum objects handling and analysis, but to see how others responded to the different approaches. In the order in which they were arranged through the museum, here is what visitors experienced, all of the six applications offering the ability to examine objects in 3-dimensions but each offering different features of interest.
The first of the visitor experiences was the Augmented Reality application “Tour of the Nile.” Laid out along the floor in one corridor was a map of the Nile, around 2m long. Positioned along its length were images of objects from the museum. Visitors were handed an iPad (a small hand-held computer with a touch-screen and a video camera lens). Whatever the camera lens sees is transmitted to the screen of the iPad, and by holding the iPad over the artefact images on the map, the special Augmented Reality images are translated into 3-dimensional objects on the iPad’s screen. Then, using fingers on the screen, it is possible to manipulate the image, turning it, zooming in and out and exploring it from every angle. It takes a few moments to get used to holding the iPad at the right angle and using the touch-screen to explore the images, but this was immensely popular with visitors who quickly got the knack of exploring each item on the screen and double-tapping it to bring up a panel with text showing all the available information about the artefact.
In the same corridor was the “Crossing Over” station, consisting of a computer, a large computer screen, a mouse and a pair of 3-D dark glasses. Visitors were able to sit and explore three very fine pieces from the Petrie’s collections at close hand, using the mouse to access various functions shown at the bottom of the screen. Options include rotating and moving the object, zooming in to focus on specific aspects, like markings or hieroglyphs, zooming out again to see the bigger picture, changing the lighting so that shadow and brightness change the 3-D effect, and removing colour so that the topography of the item can be seen without distractions. This is an incredibly absorbing application, the next best thing to one of the Petrie’s real-world object handling sessions.
At the end of the corridor was “The Life and Times of Inati.” This consisted of two components. On a computer screen was a step by step guide through the life of tomb-owner Inati, which visitors could work their way through by touching links on the screen. Next to it was a turntable bearing a black and white drawing of Inati and an iPad with a special piece of software on it. Pointing the iPad’s camera at the image on the turntable invoked a 3-dimensional image of Inati’s head in white on the iPad’s screen. By stroking the head on the touch-screen, various internal layers can be shown, from immediately beneath the skin to the skull itself. Turning the turntable changes the view, moving the head around and enabling it to be explored from different angles. This proved very popular with visitors, who were fascinated by the way in which layers could be added and subtracted from Inati’s image.
In the main space of the gallery was the star of the show, something that really drew audiences and encouraged participation: the “Gesture Tracking” station. It consists of three main components: A projection screen, a Kinect device and the person using the kit. A Kinect is a small but remarkable piece of equipment designed by Microsoft to power its Xbox gaming console. Consisting of a horizontal par on a pivoting stand, its main job is to capture the motions of a person facing it and to calibrate these motions with what is happening on the projector screen behind it. This allows the person to control whatever is happening on the screen. It is very, very clever! Initially, you stand it front of the Kinect and, beyond it, the screen on which a red cube is projected. The first job is to learn how to control the cube. Once this has been mastered you then bring in, one at a time, three artefacts from the right side of the screen by pointing to them (a tiny wooden Hathor tag, a faience eye of horus amulet or the lid of a canopic jar). By using the left arm and hand, the object on the screen can be turned every possible way so that every aspect of it can be examined. By using the right hand, a zoom effect makes the image bigger or smaller and new items can be pulled in from the edge of the screen. Seeing tiny items like the wooden Hathor (UC16759) and the faience amulet (UC52391) magnified enormously on the screen was fascinating, enabling tiny details that might otherwise go unnoticed to be seen very clearly. At the same time, a narrator (the Petrie’s Edmund Connolly) described the item, suggesting features to look for. Of all the digital stations, this one was the one that could be shared most easily because as one person manipulated the image, others could stand and watch, listening to the commentary and picking out the features described. School children, shown it earlier in the week, had asked numerous questions about the objects on the screen, proof positive that this has a high educational value.
In the pottery gallery, two more computer-based applications awaited, both of which focused on the role of digital applications in conservation work. Items requiring conservation are inherently already at risk from further handling and it is important to find ways of examining them and reconstructing them that don’t inflict any further damage. By giving conservators the ability to manipulate these items digitally, in three dimensions, much of the pre-conservation work can be carried out on screen.
The “Connecting the Past” application sits on a computer with a large screen, and shows two fragments of beautifully painted cartonnage foot-covering. In real life, as on the screen, the two pieces are separated in storage and need to be reunited (UC28120 and UC45967). At the bottom of the screen are a row of icons that allow the user to manipulate the two pieces separately. Not only can they be examined from all angles, but moved around the screen to see how best to re-attach them in three dimensions. With items as fragile as this, there is real benefit for conservators who can familiarize themselves with objects and decide how best to proceed with their handling even before pulling them out of storage. To assist with the task, a complete example of a foot covering can be shown on the screen, enabling the user to overlay the two fragments and see how they compare with the complete piece beneath.
With “A Modern Makeover” another conservation problem is shown on the screen. This time we are presented with the damaged painted cartonnage head and shoulders of an unnamed woman (UC79377), the face missing its gilded mouth and part of the gilded chin. The conservators have already done much of the conservation work on this piece, but it was the challenge of the application was to determine how best to reconstruct the mouth and chin area. A set of examples from other faces in Petrie’s collection were photographed and sized so that they could be dropped into the space on the damaged face. Finding the most appropriate match was part of the conservation job, and with this application it was possible test one’s own skills at matching various options with the damaged face, and, moving through the various steps of the application, to compare that with what the conservators themselves decided to do.
The Overall Experience
It was fascinating to experience the applications in person and to see others working with them too. Ease of use depends to an enormous degree on the quality of the guidance provided – either via the application itself or in the form of a human guide. As this was a way of helping the designers to learn from visitor experiences, lots of hands-on assistance was indeed available, but many of the applications were very easy to understand and use without any help. Everyone who engaged with the devices was a little tentative at first, but gained confidence very quickly.
The six interactive stations combined provided an insight into how both sides of museum activities will work in the future – at front of house and behind the scenes. Whilst visitors will enjoy a much more intimate relationship with objects, conservators will be able to use digitized images to virtually “handle” objects, small and large, moving them around the screen and seeing how best the real-world conservation work should be approached. Importantly, the role of digital applications in education is also obvious. If Ancient Egypt really is to be dropped from the British syllabus for school children between the ages of seven and eleven, museums will have to take over the role of educating children about Egypt’s past. Engaging interactive devices like those presented at the Digital Egypt event will be an important part of that. And looking beyond the four walls of this or any other museum, these types of application will eventually become available online, enabling virtual visits and object analysis from afar. The Petrie Museum has already made its presence felt in this realm, with its online database where objects can be turned and examined from any computer connected to the Internet. This really does feel like the stuff of the future, but the Petrie “Digital Egypt” event has shown how much of it is available today.
If you have an iPad and want to sample Digital Egypt at home, you may want to check out the “Tour Of The Nile” application, which is a small demo of how one of the items on display worked, and is available free of charge. You will also need to print a PDF of special images to use with the application from the Petrie Museum’s website. Have a look at the 3DPetrie Download site for instructions and iTunes site for downloading the app to your iPad and for more information. .