Howdy! We’re Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo, 3-D imaging specialists at the Smithsonian, also known as the Laser Cowboys( We just launched Smithsonian X 3D ( the first public collection of 3D models of Smithsonian artifacts and research which you can manipulate through our custom-built Web GL Explorer or download for free as a point cloud or 3D print file.

We’re hoping that you’ll use them to do cool stuff like see what it’s like to be in the pilot seat of the Wright Flyer(, hold a dying star in your hand ( or understand how wooly mammoth skeleton ( is put together. We also hope you creative types out there will do stuff with this data that we aren’t even thinking about yet. We also want to know—what objects would you like to see us scan in our next collection?

We'll be here until 1pm ET


**ETA: You guys have been awesome. Thanks for keeping us on our toes ( . Heading back to the corral now to do some more lasering (pewpew!). You can keep up to date on our work on Twitter: or Facebook:

Comments: 405 • Responses: 55  • Date: 

TJJohn12238 karma

Any plans yet to set up 3D printers in the gift shop and offer hot-off-the-presses artifact replicas? It's be awesome to wander through the galleries and see a little tag that says, "take this artifact home with you." hint hint

SmithsonianX3D157 karma

We plan on creating a 3D observation lab in the newly renovated Arts and Industries Building and also a makerspace with printers available for the public .... combined with Smithsonain 3D content!! see --->

Corky83104 karma

Will you be consulting with Nicolas Cage on this project?

purplemonkeydw-5 karma

This needs an answer.

Joyness113 karma

No, it doesn't.

SmithsonianX3D5 karma

We don't have Nick Cage scanning technology in house, but it certainly can be done.

Scanning people will become increasingly important outside hollywood. Lots of folks walking around DC and who visit the Smithsonian from around the world who are living history.

serlindsipity78 karma

  • Will you be sharing a list of future scans for the public?
  • Plans to handle non-research scan requests?
  • Are scans completely public and are people allowed to use them for profit?
  • Any plans to include 3D prints into the collection? What about works that incorporate scans that are altered?
  • Any idea how these scans and the prints might be used for K-12 education? Are there going to be teacher resources available?
  • Will this technology/knowledge be expanded into non-smithsonian collections?

SmithsonianX3D56 karma

  • we've got a lot of ideas but nothing we can go public with yet - no promises but what do you want to see and what would you do with it?

-it would be fun to come up with a way for the public to weigh in-maybe we'll set up a voting system

-Some 3D prints are already in the collection - the 1:1 fossil whale print will be accessioned also see altered scans likely not...

-3D prints in education here -

  • 3D tech is exploding now and can be found in almost every industry....

serlindsipity30 karma

Good to know. I'm an artist who would like to incorporate some accurate skeleton pieces into my work. Primarily educational sculpture as well as photography. I made this piece using a skeleton from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science which is the incorrect species.

I hope more museums can institute similar projects... or perhaps a massive roaming system that can visit and scan high priority items from museums. Laser Cowboys cross country tour?

SmithsonianX3D23 karma

Very cool! I am really excited to see what artists can make of our datasets.

Lots of museums are starting to 3D scan. The next step is to find a way to cross reference these collections

FKRMunkiBoi46 karma

Are there any copyright restrictions regarding making available to the public 3D scans of props from licensed properties, such as the model of the USS Enterprise or Kermit the Frog?

IIRC, the Smithsonian has props such as the classic Star Trek phasers and tricorders, which I know things like these are what I'd love to get scans of.

Also, keep up the good work, and I hope you can get everything scanned! Daunting to be sure, but epic in it's awesomeness!

SmithsonianX3D55 karma

In short - yes. The objects named above are under copyright and usually there are stipulations in the gift agreement that say how we can use the objects... If we want to make the copyrighted object's data available to the public we'd have to get permission. Luckily the vast majority of our objects are not under patent, copyright or trademark. :)

For more info on the subject check out

Oltimey7742 karma

Which would you pick first Fonzies jacket or Kermit the frog?

SmithsonianX3D121 karma

first kermit, then fonzy's jacket and then fonzy's jacket on kermit.

oh_em_gee39 karma

Just wanted to give you guys a huge pat on the back. This is FANTASTIC.

I'm having too much fun looking up Abe Lincoln's nose in 3D to come up with a good question right now.

__Adam31 karma

Oh cool, I have a question for you guys. I was browsing your javascript source, and noticed you include the Leap Motion libraries.

However, the Leap support is disabled by default. It's supposed to be toggled by the 'L' key, but this key doesn't get registered for input.

I used a little JS to enable it: javascript:document.ccexplorer.viewer.toggleLeapMotion()

And it works pretty good! Can you fix this? I can tell you the exact line to fix.

SmithsonianX3D28 karma

thanks for your comment - we just sent a note off to the developer. Stay tuned!

brownmagician31 karma

No questions, just wow. Thanks.

SmithsonianX3D22 karma

thanks so much we see this as just showing the possibilities. Only scratching the surface here - we'd love feedback on what we are doing right and how we can do better. Please take a moment to explore our 3D tours -

QwertyXYZ130 karma

This is awesome!

How long does it take to scan a fairly large model? Also, what was the largest object you had scan.

SmithsonianX3D43 karma

Large objects on average take longer to scan, but not much longer. The real time consuming factor is shape complexity. Scan a basketball - quick. Scan a human skull - not so quick. That said - CT scanning changes all that.

Biggest thing we have scanned is the Liang Bua Cave where Homo Floresiensis was found.

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory scanned a supernova. That was BIG.

NorthernDen20 karma

How are you deciding which items get scanned first?

SmithsonianX3D41 karma

In a word- impact.

  • we focus on projects that help us learn how to use these new processes better.

  • we focus on objects that have pressing research questions that can only be answered using these tools.

  • we focus on objects that would be more excited about if only they can view it in just the right way - we made this view of the Cosmic Buddha just for you -

guitarnoir19 karma

Science-Ignorant person here: Are the raw 3D scans in color, or do they have to be colorized (like those cool deep-space pics that are often colorized)

SmithsonianX3D22 karma

Good question - it depends on the capture method used. If we are using laser capture we often do not capture color only geometry. If we are using photogrammetry we do capture color but not as much accuracy with geometry. It is possible to add color back onto laser data but it is time consuming.

OculusRacer19 karma

Over at r/oculus we were excited to see this project. Any chance the 3D models will be available to be viewed through the Oculus Rift?

Awesome project btw, I hope next one you laser scan the entire museum so we can walk around and explore virtually!

SmithsonianX3D37 karma

we were using the oculus rift yesterday with our liang bua cave data from Indonesia - our Director fell into the 8 meter deep excavation pit - see that view here-

TJJohn1219 karma

As many archives do with photographs, will you guys be taking scan requests from researchers? Will there someday be a "Scan This Object, I'd like to use it in XYZ..." form just like there is when I want to have a photo scanned to publish in a book or article?

SmithsonianX3D29 karma

We would love to get to this point but the trick is that the Smithsonian has so many objects, a collection that is so vast and varied - 137 million objects and at this point a very small 3D team. Once we start to expand we would love to provide this service.

hooshtin18 karma

My wife is insanely into digitization and special collections. She's finishing her Master's Degree in Library Science and has a dream to work in academia or in a museum, such as the Smithsonian. Do you have any advice you could provide on how to get your foot in the door with places like the Smithsonian? If it helps, she is not entry level.


SmithsonianX3D14 karma

I could never have expected that I would be doing what I am doing right now. That said, the folks who end up doing this always have really eclectic backgrounds. The good news is that you can get your foot in the door through the tech side or the museum side.

danamuses12 karma

Are you open to (or maybe already planning to) share the backend tools you used to build the explorer with other museums and cultural institutions to use? Are there ways we can collaborate across institutions?

SmithsonianX3D11 karma

The X3D Explorer is in beta right now. But all options are on the table moving forward.

captainmagictrousers11 karma

There are a lot of rumors about the Smithsonian keeping some unusual historical artifacts secret from the general public. Have you guys seen anything weird most people wouldn't know about? Are there any locked rooms you're not allowed to go in?

SmithsonianX3D38 karma

Many a locked room, but it's just about storage and security for the objects so that they last longer than us. By digitizing them we "unlock" all those doors.

Also a big fan of the drawer filled with Pleistocene era giant sloth poop.

GuantanaMo10 karma

Great stuff. What kind of education do you need to become a "Laser Cowboy"?

SmithsonianX3D29 karma

Both of us have fine arts degrees and have always had a passion for chaps, cowboy boots and lasers.

bamascarlett9 karma

Thank you for this. I grew up in Fairfax, and my dad worked in DC. I was lucky enough to call the Smithsonian my "babysitter" for years. I spent hours(probably years) wandering through all the museums. It taught me so much about science and art and history. I was able to bring my husband and my 11 yo for their first visit 2 years ago. We can't wait to come back. This is great to have at our fingertips until we can get back. They didn't want to leave Air and Space :)

Have you done any of Julia's kitchen yet? Dorothy's shoes? Thanks again from a grown-up who was blessed to grow up looking at these wonderful things, I'm glad the rest of the world gets to see some of the cool stuff.

SmithsonianX3D4 karma

It means so much to hear that - thanks! I visit all the time with my family when I'm off the clock and we do what we can to share what we see and do on the clock.

dipboy8 karma

Hi guys and thanks for doing this! Are there any artifacts/treasures that you have seen, but the museum won't let you scan them? I'm talking about like hidden ones that the public doesn't normally see.

SmithsonianX3D26 karma

We will never let you see our unicorn farm. We just don't feel like sharing that.

...I hate to break it to you, but the public doesn't see MOST of our objects. Only 2% are on display. We are particularly concerned with sharing as much of that 98% as possible through digitization.

o_MrBombastic_o5 karma

This is awesome, however the fact that my mobile browser does not support 3D images is not :(

SmithsonianX3D11 karma

Should work on android. Not ipad / iphone. They need to unlock webGL on their mobile devices. It is technically very possible and hopefully just a matter of time.

DigitalCollections5 karma

First off, thank you for hosting the Smithsonian x 3D conference. It was an absolute honor to attend! I left filled with inspiration and ideas for applications of digitization in my new position at a fledgling digital collections center at a institution of higher education. I've been following what you have been doing over the past few years with the greatest admiration! I can't express how happy it made me to see such a diverse group of attendees coming together to really consider the impact 3D digitization can have on collections management, conservation,research, and outreach. Well done!

So many questions!!

What does your support staff look like beyond the Director and you two Program Officers? What roles do the other people play?

Do you have staff and content platforms devoted to the curation and preservation of the files your acquisition processes and post processing yield?

Would you ever consider hosting staff from institutions with similar initiatives to tour your facilities for a day?

If I may go on, I have to also congratulate you on the unveiling of the new 3D viewer. It is unspeakably amazing to be able to manipulate so many in-depth views of the specimen models. Beyond that, the way that the viewer stands as a point of confluence for all different types of information to come together to tell a complete story is incredible. Such a powerful tool! I honestly lost it a bit over that!

SmithsonianX3D2 karma

We are a VERY small team. Just one more employee beyond Vince and I who do all 3D work. Looking for ways to scale up and keep up given the overwhelming (and welcomed) expectations after the past couple days.

We see our work so far as just showing the possibilities and get feedback from you and others so we can figure out how to move on with clearer direction and greater ambition.

notdomoduro5 karma

What's your favorite artifact? Why?

SmithsonianX3D12 karma

my favorite artifact is a flower and a bee - I made a custom view for you here--->

It is an amazing story - check out the tour

skinnystompin5 karma

As a digital archivist (and recent UMich classmate of someone working on this) I'm interested in hearing how you are going to preserve this information. Scans like these must take up tons of space, so data storage and description has to be a huge project. Can you talk a little about your process for long-term preservation of this information?

SmithsonianX3D11 karma

great question. The Smithsonian has a large data center. Storage is pretty cheap nowadays but creating meta-data, organizing and making that data searchable is a huge challenge. We are currently working on a digital asset management plan for our 3D data. The advantage we have is that we are at the ground floor with this type of data and if we make the right decision early on we will save ourselves a huge headache in the years to come as 3D capture becomes more common.

The good news is that raw 3D data is incredibly simple. When we scan an object in 3D we create a point cloud. That point cloud is a visualization of a text file. Each point has an x,y and z value so the raw data can be saved as a .txt file. We know how to make text files durable.

My personal plan is to laser etch the .txt scan file of our objects onto a giant stone tablet making the data durable for a few million years. :)

EatingSandwiches14 karma

Could you scan and model historical sites such as the Colisseum or Great Wall of China? as a former history major this would be awesome!

SmithsonianX3D3 karma

There are a lot of great projects out there. This is an old, but REALLY cool project that Cornell did with the scanning the Colosseum in 3D using Tourist photos.

SmithsonianX3D1 karma

Yes. In fact our friend's have done the Colisseum in 3D through flickr harvested photos - they created an incredible reconstruction -

We've scanned some big things too-

Fossil whales -


tsoccer934 karma

This is incredible. How are you doing the scans of the internal, hollow peices? I noticed the wright flier's combustion chambers were hollow, how was that laser scanned?

SmithsonianX3D8 karma

great question- for the Orchid, bee and crab we used CT scanning which captures exterior and interior geometry.

The Wright Flyer data was mostly from laser scanning (phase shift), with laser capture we have line of sight issues, we can scan what we can see. To get the internal parts of the engine we modeled in Inventor using old 2D drawings that were created decades ago.

sandman3003 karma

I'm a physics PhD student who works a lot with 3D imaging, and happen to know quite a few people who work in museums, so I've been fascinated by this project since I first heard about it. Great to see you're doing an AMA!

I was wondering about how much of the imaging procedure had to be adapted to this specific project, seeing as you're capturing sensitive and fragile artifacts. Also (kind of a related question), to what degree do you have to approach each object uniquely? Do you have to often account varying material properties (e.g., absorption, relectivity, size, etc.)?

SmithsonianX3D2 karma

all of the 3D capture tools that we use are adapted from other industries whether it be engineering, architecture, Hollywood or medical... We are hoping that the 3D industry see museums/ cultural heritage institution as a market and start developing tools for us.

We will choose the appropriate scanning method depending upon what questions are being asked, material properties and objects size

The 3D scanning challenges for the vast and varied Smithsonian collection is extremely challenging. This is what makes us a great test-bed for the 3D scanning market!

One_Eyed_Bandito3 karma

How high resolution are you guys going? I saw the Mammoth skeleton, and while awesome, isn't very detailed up close.

Also minor note, the middle-click and right-click are reversed from most 3D programs (middle-click is pan and right-click is zoom normally)

It's one of my life's dreams to spend an entire week at the Smithsonian just ogling history... Awesome work guys!

SmithsonianX3D5 karma

Click on the "2.5D" tab in the upper right hand corner to see something closer to full res data.

With online 3D model viewing we really have not limits with the resolution we can serve up if folks have monster computers, bandwidth and a bit of time. That said we set model resolution so that we even folks with modest bandwidth can have a good experience. doubling our resolution cuts out 10% or our audience at the moment. The digital landscape will look really different in 6 months. otherwise folks an download raw or full res data (still in the proess of uploading this stuff).

Navigation - I hear you. cacophony of "standard" navigation configurations out there.

We hope you can make it here some day - till then we are working on coming to you!

FrostyPoo2 karma

As an engineer who works with 3D scanning and printing, what are you guys using to scan everything in? I'm especially curious about the big stuff.

SmithsonianX3D4 karma

Unfortunately we are not scanning everything. We have 137 million artifacts. We use medical CT, microCT, laser, whitelight and photogrammetry methods.

Lean more about our plans to 3D scan Smithsonian collections here -

N8theGr82 karma

Does Superman ever show up to interrupt your work?

Edit I just realized that may be a little obscure. One of the villains in the Superman comics is Metallo.

SmithsonianX3D1 karma

It's me not you - should have caught that!

Rev_Sudasana2 karma

Any possibility that the models might one day be animated and/or interactive? The ability to try out the controls on the Flyer and see the engine turn the propellers would be simply incredible.

SmithsonianX3D11 karma

Yes. I recommend that someone downloads the 1903 Wright Flyer and creates an animations of the first flight!

Can you do that for me now please? Here is the download -

photogadam2 karma

The Human Evolution Evidence is what I would really like to see become available to be printed in 3D. I'm not sure if these are just photos and would need to be scanned, or are ready to go, but I think these would help put a hands on approach to the human evolution (not to mention how cool it would be)! Is this something that would be possible to scan in its entirety?

SmithsonianX3D1 karma

This is a great idea. The Natural History Museum has some great 3D models here-

Perhaps one day we could host their data on our new 3D explorer

TheR1Kid1 karma

Are you guys independent contractors or are you employed by the Smithsonian? I recently purchased a Creaform GO!SCAN3D handheld 3D scanner and a seat of Rapidform XOR, any pointers on drumming up work?

SmithsonianX3D1 karma

We are genuine Federal Employees of the Smithsonian Institution. 3D capture is easy. 3D post processing is hard. Get good at that. :)

BattleGecko1 karma

Is there a list you are following for what order the objects are being scanned? Are you starting with objects that are popular or objects that need to be preserved?

This is so cool and I like the work you are doing!!!

SmithsonianX3D2 karma

We are prioritizing objects that we can use 3D tech to tell a story in a new way or do research in a new way... Iconic objects are a good start like the 1903 Wright Flyer.

see for our current objects. More to come soon!

thank you!

WilfridVoynich1 karma

What's the coolest item that you have scanned so far?

t3rrapins1 karma

Could you 3D print a 3D printer that 3D prints other things in 3D?

Wazowski1 karma

How do you capture the surface textures for a model scanned by laser? Do you measure reflectivity/specularity of the surface somehow?

SmithsonianX3D3 karma

Usually we complement laser data with texture from photogrammetry if we need color. Not an easy workflow in general. PTM and RTI is a really cool way to capture reflectance.

Our friends at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute do a lot of this work.

lawlshane1 karma

This is incredible. Very glad this is happening. Thanks to all involved! what are the challenges involved with the scanning process? do you have favourite artifacts?

SmithsonianX3D3 karma

Thank you for the interest!

The biggest challenge is post processing the data - taking the raw scan data of the 1903 Wright Flyer was very, very challenging. It turns out over the two days that we were scanning the flyer the wings were moving almost an inch due to temperature fluctuations. Trying to line up all of that misaligned data was extremely time consuming. The 1903 Wright Flyer is my fav- Learn more here-

takenstaken1 karma

This is amazing and a fantastic use of 3D scanning! I'll be playing around with one of the files and see what I can do with it. Thank you!

How do you deal with textures? UVing can be tedious in many 3d program. Does the scanner do this automatically?

SmithsonianX3D3 karma

Thank you! Can't wait to see what you can do -

If we are capturing using photogrammetry we get good texture maps. If using lasers we do not get color info. If we do texture map manually but this is not ideal, hoping for the 3d industry to solve this soon!

Binary_Wombat1 karma

What you guys are doing is amazing. What one item you are scanning are you most excited about making a 3D copy of?

SmithsonianX3D3 karma

Thank you! We just printed and were able to hold an example of cosmic stellar death in our hands - a supernova remnant 11 billion light years from earth. see model here-

mpfisch1 karma

Are you taking proper precautions to prevent Nic Cage stealing any/all artifacts?

SmithsonianX3D3 karma

CAGE is a constant source of anxiety around here.

MrGoFaGoat1 karma

What are you using to 3d scan the objects?? My brother is developing a 3d scanner using Kinect, so I'm curious about what else peopld are using! Thanks :)

SmithsonianX3D2 karma

We use laser, whitelight, CT, microCT and photogrammetry. The kinect has huge promise as it is the first consumer 3D scanner and extremely inexpensive. I am curious to see what folks do with the new Kinect! Good luck with your experiments!

dreadead1 karma

Can you scan the penis of the male elephant that had it removed from the Natural History gallery, or did they just throw it away?

SmithsonianX3D4 karma

We left the elephant gender neutral so we can create an Augmented Reality app that will allow you to toggle between male and female anatomy.

MisazamatVatan1 karma

What's been your favourite object to create / scan so far on this project.

Also this is such a brilliant idea, as someone who would love to visit the Smithsonian one day I can't wait till this is finished so I can view all the artifacts without expensive airfare.

SmithsonianX3D2 karma

Preaching to the quire here. We need folks to download our very modest selection of models and show the world what can be done. That helps us justify scanning more.

American_Scarface1 karma

I've browsed through and looked at a few of your scans and they are awesome. Great job. My question though is will everything be scanned including things in storage or will it just be the items on public display now?

SmithsonianX3D1 karma

We scan things that are on display and things that are in storage. Funny thing is that when you have something on display the scientists don't have access. When you have something in storage, the visitors don't have access. Scan it and you have helped to solve a big problem for both.

Doglog561 karma

Not sure how aware you guys are about this topic (or if you even care), but have either of you ever thought that maybe taking something like the whale hat you guys have and submitting it was some sort of video game part per say a team fortress 2 hat? or maybe taking the jacket and having it put out in a video game?

SmithsonianX3D2 karma

We would love to see some of this stuff in games - early adopters. The hat is special though. That was rightfully repatriated to the Tlinigit Clan and they very graciously allowed us to scan and include it in the explorer. We work closely with them whenever it is used in a new context so they remain in control of their own patrimony.