Autodesk's Memento brings artefacts into a 3D digital reality

Autodesk worked in partnership with Kenya-based archaeologist Dr Louise Leakey using 3D software to create a digital laboratory to give people access to artefacts they didn't have before.

The oldest stone tools known to scientific discovery date back 3.3 million years. The discovery of the tools, along with many other archaeological findings in East Africa, was made by the Leakey family, who have been archaeologists for three generations.

Dr Louise Leakey
(Image: Supplied)

However, most of their discoveries have been sitting behind a glass display in a Kenyan museum. The only way anyone could ever see these artefacts was to visit the museum.

Carrying on the family legacy today is Dr Louise Leakey, who has been working with Autodesk since 2011 to find a way bring the artefacts to an international audience.

Tatjana Dzambazova, Autodesk technology whisperer and product manager of reality capture and digital fabrication, explained that the solution to this was to create a virtual laboratory that would make 3D models of the fossils accessible to scholars, educators, and other researchers online. The models would then be available to be viewed and 3D printed.

While it was an idea for a long time, the ability to create an online version of a museum was impossible due to restrictions of technology, said Dzambazova. She said that while there was software available to scan photos and create 3D models, it was often designed and used by architects, engineers, game makers, and industrial designers in mind, meaning they were often costly and difficult to use.

Dzambazova said the other problem was that for academia who could afford the expensive tools, it was not scalable.

"We're dealing with thousands of architects, but they only have access to one scanner, and it's complicated. In the process of creating useful replicas that you can print or you can share online, until recently, you needed to use five or six different tools, none of them made with archaeologists or scientists in mind; they were more tools for engineers," she said.

However, over the years, Dzambazova said that with technology becoming more accessible, new types of scanners and devices have enabled 3D scanning to be digitised faster, and without an expensive price tag.

To complement the newer scanners, Autodesk designed Memento, software that allows users to convert photos or scans into 3D models that can be viewed online and even 3D printed.

"We wanted to make the process for creating digital artefacts really simple so that somebody like a scientist or a curator from a museum can use it, and then they can digitise the data and use that data to either educate, share ideas, or fabricate to make copies," Dzambazova said.

Using Autodesk's Memento, Leakey has since been able to convert photos of fossils into digital models, making it accessible online so that it can be viewed, zoomed, compared, and even downloaded to be 3D printed or transformed into cardboard replicas.

Dzambazova said that giving the world access to a database of artefacts brings in new usage possibilities, such as changing the way students learn in the classroom.

"The idea is that education can become more experiential; instead of opening the book and seeing what the difference is, students would be able to look at 3D-printed artefacts," she said.

Autodesk has also partnered up with the Smithsonian to design a similar platform, Smithsonian X 3D, which launched last November. Users are able to take digital tours of the platform, allowing them to access information and videos about the artefacts.