New digital technology opens the door to the virtual museum experience

Hull, Quebec, June 29, 1995 -- A National Research Council (NRC) technology developed in collaboration with the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) is giving visitors to the Canadian Museum of Civilization a novel experience. The technology -- dubbed the Digital 3D Imaging System -- heralds a new era of global access to precious museum collections -- by means of virtual reality.

Visitors to the exhibition Mothers of Time: Seven Palaeolithic Figurines from the Louis Alexandre Jullien Collection get to admire the precious tiny Ice-Age artifacts, behind a glass case. Thanks to the new technology, they will also be able to examine and manipulate -- by means of three-dimensional, stereoscopic viewing -- high-resolution, accurate color renditions of the thumb-size sculptures. The technology allows the spectator to magnify the image, turn it upside down or zoom in on a specific detail.

Dr. George MacDonald (left) and Dr. Arthur Carty

The reproductions look like the real thing, especially with the aid of special glasses which allow the images to leap out in life-like form. The fact that these images can be easily stored in a database will enable museums to display complete collections, unhindered by limited exhibit space or fear of wear and tear caused by exhibiting.

"NRC's Digital 3D Imaging System is among the best in the world, because of its speed and high resolution," says Dr. Arthur Carty, NRC President. The technology was developed by NRC's Institute for Information Technology.

The system uses a 3D colour laser camera to capture the images. A Silicon Graphics workstation is then used in conjunction with software developed by NRC, CCI and InnovMetric Software to generate 3D colour models for display on a large Electrohome stereoscopic projector.

Stereoscopic projection systems take advantage of the way the human brain works, to provide added depth perception and details not discernible from two-dimensional displays. "Electrohome stereoscopic projectors deliver images that are high resolution, colour-correct and flicker-free, attributes which are important in achieving the desired realism of virtual reality," stated Gerry Remers, director of marketing for projection systems. "As well, the units operate at scanning frequencies used by sophisticated workstations required for three-dimensional imaging, like those from Silicon Graphics."

The Digital 3-D Imaging Technology is powered by Silicon Graphics' Onyx Reality Engine 2, the fastest graphics engine available on the market today. The high quality graphics allow digital reproduction of objects that, to the human eye, appear to be real, allowing people to interact with them in a new and exciting format.

"Of course, 3D-imaging will never replace the display of actual artefacts", declares Dr. George MacDonald, CMC's Executive Director. "However, the CMC welcomes the opportunity to enhance upcoming exhibitions and displays with a tool of such exciting potential, serving not only our on-site visitors, but ultimately, the visitors we will soon be reaching via the information superhighway -- thus helping us to fulfill our mandate as a museum without walls."

photos: Harry Foster

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