The Smithsonian Uses High-Resolution 3D Scanning, Autodesk’s Ember to Reveal the Secrets of the Cosmic Buddha

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The Cosmic Buddha.

The Cosmic Buddha.

The Cosmic Buddha, or Vairochana, is a life-sized headless Buddha statue that was carved from limestone in the sixth century. What makes it special is its robe, which has been carved with intricate illustrations and detailed narrative scenes of Buddhist stories, including several based on the past lives of the Historical Buddha. The illustrations completely cover the entire robe, though over time the delicate carvings have started to fade. Scholars and historians have never been able to examine all of the carvings completely because many of them had faded entirely. However with new advances in high-resolution 3D scanning, researchers have finally been able to get a look at many of the illustrations that had previously been lost to time.

To show off what the Smithsonian discovered and how they did it, their Freer | Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. is hosting an interactive exhibit called Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D. The exhibit shows visitors the previously hidden meanings of an ancient Chinese sculpture, and lets them watch replicas of the statue be 3D printed in light-cured resins by Autodesk’s Ember 3D printer. The detailed 3D scanning was done by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, which produced the highest-resolution 3D mappings of the Cosmic Buddha sculpture to date. The scan of the Buddha was part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing effort to capture their massive collection digitally.

The high definition 3D scans of the Cosmic Buddha.

The high definition 3D scans of the Cosmic Buddha.

From the description of the Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D exhibit:

3D scanning the Cosmic Buddha.

3D scanning the Cosmic Buddha.

“Like all Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), the Cosmic Buddha, a life-size limestone figure of Vairochana, is wrapped in the simple robe of a monk. What makes this sixth-century Chinese object exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha also exists as a 3D model, enabling scholars to study the work as never before and providing worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture. Body of Devotion is an interactive installation that explores not only the work itself, but also the evolving means and methods of studying sculpture, from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today.”

The detailed 3D scan was turned into an interactive 3D model that can be viewed and explored entirely online from every conceivable angle. The Smithsonian’s team was able to create the high-quality 3D model using Autodesk ReMake, formerly Autodesk Memento, the newly released software package that converts 2D photos and 3D scans into high-definition 3D meshes that can be cleaned up, repaired, edited, scaled, measured and optimized for downstream workflows. The software was able to reveal carvings and illustrations that were no longer clearly visible to the naked eye, but still present on the statue’s robe.

3D printing a Cosmic Buddha.

3D printing a Cosmic Buddha.

In addition to creating a detailed 3D model of the Cosmic Buddha, the Smithsonian also wanted to be able to 3D print detailed replicas of the statue and its carvings. In order to be able to produce 3D prints that would be capable of reproducing the delicate carvings, the Smithsonian again turned to Autodesk for help. In order for the very fine details of the statue to be visible on a scaled down, 3D printed replica they would need to have a 3D printer that was capable of producing extremely detailed parts with very high-quality surface finishes. The ReMake team invited the Smithsonian’s audio visual and media producer Hutomo Wicaksono to their San Francisco facility and R&D lab, where they introduced him to the Ember. Wicaksono was given some training on using the Ember, and Autodesk’s 3D printing preparation software Print Studio, and turned the 3D scan of the sculpture into a detailed, scaled down 3D printed replica of the Cosmic Buddha.

Here is the 3D model of the Cosmic Buddha sculpture.

Not only was Autodesk able to help the Smithsonian make their Cosmic Buddha exhibit possible, but they have now actually become part of the exhibit. The Smithsonian acquired an Ember 3D printer of their own and have placed it on display at the Freer | Sackler Gallery where it will be 3D printing replicas of the Cosmic Buddha throughout the exhibit. The goal is to demonstrate how institutions like the Smithsonian are using 3D technology for studying and preserving antiquities. You can visit the Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D exhibit on display until December 2016, and see live demonstrations and workshops using Autodesk’s Ember 3D printer. Discuss further in the 3D Scanning & Cosmic Buddha forum over at 3DPB.com.

A 3D printed replica of the Cosmic Buddha 3D printed on Ember.

A 3D printed replica of the Cosmic Buddha 3D printed on Ember.

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