Interactive Visualization of 3D Scanned Mummies at Public Venues
By Anders Ynnerman, Thomas Rydell, Daniel Antoine, David Hughes, Anders Persson, Patric Ljung
Communications of the ACM, Vol. 59 No. 12, Pages 72-81
By combining visualization techniques with interactive multi-touch tables and intuitive user interfaces, visitors to museums and science centers can conduct self-guided tours of large volumetric image data. In an interactive learning experience, visitors become the explorers of otherwise invisible interiors of unique artifacts and subjects. Here, we take as our starting point the state of the art in scanning technologies, then discuss the latest research on high-quality interactive volume rendering and how it can be tailored to meet the specific demands of public venues. We then describe our approach to the creation of interactive stories and the design principles on which they are based and interaction with domain experts. The article is based on experience from several application domains but uses a 2012 public installation of an ancient mummy at the British Museum as its primary example. We also present the results of an evaluation of the installation showing the utility of the developed solutions.
Visitors walk into Gallery 64, the Early Egypt Gallery at the British Museum, eager to see and learn about one of the most famous and oldest mummies in the collection. Known as the Gebelein Man, he was buried in a crouched position in a shallow grave during the late pre-dynastic period at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Unlike later Egyptian mummies, he was not artificially embalmed and his body was naturally mummified by the arid environment and direct contact with the hot dry sand more than 5,500 years ago. The mummy is safely protected behind glass and within a carefully controlled environment, beyond physical reach (see Figure 1). As visitors continue through the gallery a large touch-table display draws their attention. Gathered around the table are several other visitors gazing down at the glass screen.
The same mummy is shown on the surface of the table, but, as a visitor moves a virtual slider on the table, the muscles, organs, and skeleton reveal themselves as the skin is gradually peeled away. Another visitor turns the mummy around to explore the other side. Someone touches the information icon near the left shoulder blade to discover that the cut on his back, as well as the damaged underlying shoulder blade and fourth rib, are the result of a single penetrating wound. The history of the Gebelein Man unfolds for the visitor in the same way researchers have used visualization to establish the cause of death; the Gebelein Man was murdered, with a metal blade the most likely weapon.2
The technology allowing visitors to the British Museum to explore the Gebelein Man is an image-generation technique called "volume rendering" that is efficiently executed on graphics processing units (GPUs). A stack of thousands of 2D images, as generated by modern computed tomography (CT) X-ray scanners, is processed in parallel to interactively create images. During the past decade, various museums have begun to scan human remains and artifacts from their collections. Not only are mummies scanned, so too are meteorites, bee flies, gecko lizards embedded in amber, and much more in 3D; see a 2013 report from the Smithsonian Institution.4
This article describes the underlying research and development of algorithms and technologies that have become the basis for a software solution for multi-touch tables. It also describes how the workflow of scanning, curating, and integrating the data into the overall creation of stories for the public can lead to engaging installations at museums around the world. Our work is an example of how computing technologies, especially in computer graphics and visualization, allow a general audience to interact with and explore the very same data that only scientists and domain experts have previously been able to study. Figure 2 shows children exploring the Neswaiu mummy at the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm.
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