AR Family History Project

My great grandmother on my mom’s side was an early collector of arts and artifacts from native people in North America. In the 1930s she moved to Berkeley, Calif., and began traveling around the West to indigenous communities, where she acquired Navajo blankets, Alaskan Inuit masks, and a wonderful collection of California native baskets.

80 years later, those baskets are still around the family well preserved and I’ve decided to tackle a fun digital project to archive them as 3D objects using a technique I learned a few years ago called Photogrammetry. The process enables you to photograph an object from all angles and assemble those into a 3D model with a textured surface and a high-resolution outer skin that makes it look like a real live object when viewed on an iPhone.

Below is an example, shown in a series of screenshots from my iPhone:

The screenshots show four stages of the experience of viewing a 3D object on an iPhone using AR QuickLook. (note that you can see the basket in the foreground, but not in the reflection of the mirror.)

Anyone with an iPhone X or a Mac running iOS 12 can view these Augmented Reality files in a virtual experience. If you’re reading this post on older computing equipment or an Android device, it may just download the USDZ file to your desktop.

If you happen to be running one of those operating systems described above right now look for the little icon in the top left corner of the image above that looks like this:

…click on it and view my virtual basket right now on your desk or kitchen table!

Recreating the world in 3D

I’ve been fascinated with 3D model making since I first began playing around with the process and technology in 2017 while working at Apple. The company had just released an early version of ARKit bringing augmented reality to the iOS platform, and i was working on a project to create 3D content assets for some prototype AR apps.

Not my project, but one of the first (and most impressive) augmented reality apps is on display at Apple HQ – it’s a scaled-down model of the Apple “Spaceship” campus that comes to life via an iPad app.

How it’s made

Most 3D models, like the giant Apple campus above, are created from the pixels up using complex 3D rendering software that I didn’t know how to use. Most skilled professionals in that space are video game makers or movie makers.

Instead, I explored an alternative route that only required some basic computing skills but more relied on a talent I did have: studio photography with 3-point lighting and a DSLR camera.

After watching a series of YouTube videos — mostly produced by Geologists who were capturing 3D models of their found rocks and minerals — I built a DIY photogrammetry studio in the spare office down the hall.

My only investment was a $10 ball-bearing spinner that I mounted on the underside of a round tabletop. This allowed me to rotate the tabletop 360 degrees to photograph the object from all angles with a tripod-mounted camera.

The process works for people, too, I learned first hand after getting my own self scanned on a giant version of my DIY turntable:

For museums and collectors

There’s another industry that has been an early adopter of photogrammetry for 3D model making: the keepers of our ancient art and artifacts. Museums across the globe have been perfecting the process and teaching it to their archivists in an effort to preserve the world’s rareties as 3D objects.

The business driver has to do with insurance. When a priceless piece of art gets scratched or dinged, a museum can refer back to the 3D model made when it was acquired. If the scratch does not appear on the model, the insurance agency will know that it’s new.

Learning about this emerging field inspired me to archive my own family’s collection.

California native baskets are not rare, but they are collectible and you can find them on display in many California museums and personal private collections. Stay tuned for my digital exhibit, coming soon to

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