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3D models explore our built cultural heritage through time, onsite and remotely

European identity grows from its citizens having access to, and understanding of, the region’s cultural heritage as it evolves over time. INCEPTION developed enriched 3D models of built and social environments through time, for more engaging interaction with this heritage.

Digital Economy

While 3D reconstruction has greatly enhanced audiences’ experience of cultural heritage, it is still hampered by the limitations of the equipment involved, storage capabilities and cost-effectiveness. By adapting currently available technology, the EU-supported INCEPTION project has redefined how 3D modelling can render our cultural heritage more accessible. INCEPTION used advanced Building Information Modelling (BIM) techniques, to create next-generation 3D models of artefacts and environments, accompanied digitally by contextual technical and historical information. These models were integrated into the project’s web platform which users could access using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools. Using interactive features such as Time Machine, users can experience the dynamic reconstruction of buildings through time.

3D modelling: capture, processing and end-use

When it comes to modelling buildings or archaeological sites, 3D laser scanners and photogrammetry (including drones and robots) usually provide the initial data sources for BIM models. INCEPTION captures this data and uploads it to its platform where it is accompanied by geospatial coordinates to position objects or sites of interest (such as historical buildings) on a world map. The models are then enriched with explanatory digital information (such as historical documents) corresponding to physical features or points in time. Using a standard web browser, users from scholars to members of the public can search the database of models (free of charge) using keywords, as well as spatial and multi-criteria queries. They can then interact with the model either onsite, using VR tools, or remotely via the web platform. Users can select a period of time or a specific physical feature to explore and the appropriate version of the model will appear. For example, with the model of the Istituto degli Innocenti (one of the project case studies) in Florence, Italy, by selecting one of its nine semicircular arches, users can learn not only about its terracotta designs (by Andrea della Robbia), but also about the building’s original function as an orphanage, to which the relief design alludes. INCEPTION’s open standards and workflows for 3D cultural heritage modelling (known as ‘Open H-BIM’) allows the technology to be adopted by wider cultural heritage efforts. Users can upload basic models to the system and then update them over time, like a wiki. Additionally, all the platform’s information is encoded according to the semantic web’s standards, making it machine readable. The INCEPTION process was tested across nine Demonstration Cases from six European partner countries (Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain) selected for their range of contexts, differing in typology, physical dimensions, state of conservation and main purpose (tourism, conservation, etc.). “The groundbreaking technical core of the INCEPTION platform redefines the significance of 3D heritage models, positioning them as knowledge aggregators,” says Roberto Di Giulio, project coordinator. “The immediate next step is to populate the platform with more 3D models from European cultural heritage buildings and sites, linking materials such as video, images, texts, audio files, etc. from important institutional sources, such as Europeana” adds Di Giulio. A spin-off company, called INCEPTION s.r.l. is to be incubated at the University of Ferrara and will bring the technology to the market, with future iterations digitising cultural heritage in the face of threats due to natural disasters, pollution, mass tourism, terrorism and vandalism.


INCEPTION, semantic web, cultural heritage, 3D models, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Building Information Modelling, design, Archaeological sites, digitising

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27 July 2020