It’s a Bird! It’s a Project! It’s a Bird Project!

You may have observed some seemingly odd experiments if you’ve walked past the Digital Studio this semester. What are all those flashing lights, and are those… birds? In reality, what you’re witnessing is an important contribution to undergraduate pedagogy here at BC. Hands-on time with specimens is a critical component of any Biology curriculum, especially for Ornithology, where students must familiarize themselves with the anatomical details of dozens of bird species. But time in the lab is inherently limited, so how can we expand and enhance students’ access to such an important resource? 

Prof. Jeff Da Costa is addressing this issue in his classroom by introducing a virtual repository that will allow students to view, study, and interact with 3D scans of a range of birds from the departmental collection. The Digital Scholarship Group has partnered with Prof. Da Costa to create this collection, beginning with scanning two dozen birds as a trial sample. The initial phase involved testing several scanning modes, including photogrammetry, structured light, and infrared. In the end, the IR scanner newly acquired by the O’Neill Library this semester proved to be the most accurate and reliable methodology for the particularities of avian morphology. This handheld scanner employs infrared light to map the surface geometry of an object in real time while using an RGB sensor to capture texture data simultaneously. The process allows complete scans to be captured, processed, and rendered within two hours. 

Images: 1.) Antonio LoPiano works with Julia, a biology student in her junior year, on editing models. 2.) Julia scans a bird. 3.) What it looks like on the computer when a bird is being scanned.

The project’s next phase will be to scan the remainder of the study collection and upload the models to Sketchfab, which will serve as the online repository for the scans. Sketchfab will allow students to interact with birds in a 3D space where they can examine plumage and anatomical structures from all angles, even projecting them into the real world through augmented reality. The Sketchfab platform has the added advantage of allowing for annotations so specific features can be called out or highlighted, further enhancing the pedagogical value of the models. Students will be able to view these models at any time to study and review them beyond the confines of the lab. The next goal after the competition of this phase? Scanning all the birds native to Massachusetts!