Exploring 3D objects for online learning

Early in the Coronavirus lockdown 2020, what seems an age ago now, parents found a new digital toy to amuse their children. Google had released a new feature in their search results where the search terms ‘panda’ or ‘tiger’ would bring the option to display a real creature in your own living room. This augmented reality (AR) was a bit of fun and kept my 4 year old’s attention for two precious minutes, but this same technology has some real world teaching applications. In this post I will explore a couple of tools which can bring objects and experiences to people who might otherwise not be able to access them due to location, cost or risk.

3D models

3D models can really help students to appreciate the shape and detail of an object, and with AR, their scale. 

Over recent years, many institutions, including Cleveland Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, have started to share 3D scans of their collections online and for free via a service called SketchFab. SketchFab now has a massive library of 3D objects which can be embedded in a webpage for students to rotate and view from different angles.

A 3D model of the Smithsonian’s Apollo 11 Command Module on Sketchfab. The image shows links to download the model, embed and share.
A 3D model of the Smithsonian’s Apollo 11 command Module on Sketchfab.

Selecting the embed option under the 3D model on the Sketchfab website will allow you to copy embed code which can then be pasted into a Canvas page. See the Canvas guides for information on how to embed in Canvas.

Please note, SketchFab does not currently support keyboard navigation for rotating viewing models, so some of your students may not be able to access this content and you will need to provide an alternative, such as a text description.

Augmented Reality (AR)

In March 2020 SketchFab announced that all objects were available in USDZ format. This format, created in a collaboration between Apple and Pixar, allows you to view the objects in AR, overlayed on your own location through a mobile device. 

Image shows a hand holding an iPad. on the screen of the iPad a 3D model of an amphora is overlaid on the scene captured by the iPad camera.
Viewing a 3D model of an amphora in AR

For those with iPhones or iPads a link to a USDZ file opens an AR image which you can place in your environment. Try this by finding a model on the Sketchfab website, underneath the model select the download option and choose USDZ format.

You could place an image in a Canvas page and link it to a USDZ file so that those with a mobile device could click and view the AR version of the object. For those without an apple mobile device, clicking the link will simply download the file.

If you have a little more technical know-how you could link to a version that will work on both Android and iOS devices. Please note this code can’t be embedded in Canvas directly, though there are workarounds.

Sketchfab is not the only solution for embedding 3D models into web pages. Alternatives include Mozilla’s Aframe.io and Google Poly.

Virtual reality (VR) tours

If you can’t get somewhere in person, Google Street View is a well known tool that may jump to mind as a way of exploring an area. Using Google Tour Creator you can take pictures from Google Street View along with your own 360 footage and create a tour, adding points of interest, overlaying images and narration.

In 2019 the Art History department at the University of Sussex visited Rome and as part of that trip they captured 360 images of several sites. Now that travel to Rome is limited, that content can be used to replace at least some of the experience of being there.

Again with virtual tour software, accessibility can be an issue so do speak with your students to ensure they can view any resources you create and be ready to provide alternatives where they can’t.

Alternative tools for VR tours include ThingLink, H5P and Paneek.

These were just a couple of examples of how you can provide virtual experiences of remote objects and places. If you are currently using or interested in VR technologies for teaching at the University of Sussex we’d love to hear about it. Contact tel@sussex.ac.uk to get in touch or to find out more.

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