The Arqball Spin: 3D for Everybody (and Every Archaeologist?)

This week, I received a surprising tweet from a company called Arqball, located in Charlottesville, VA. A small startup who’s focus is on creating “3D for Everybody”, they recently launched an iPhone app called Arqball Spin. The app creates “spins”, or 3D captures of objects. These images are small, easy to share, and embed-able. They assumed, correctly, that I might have an interest in the product: clearly, an inexpensive, easy to use, portable, and shareable way to capture objects in 3D could be an incredibly useful thing for archaeologists, both in the lab and in the field. More importantly, the applications for digital heritage are obvious: being able to share an object in a way that gives the objects depth makes them that much more tangible for the public.

The software itself, however, comes with some limitations: namely, that walking around an object at the perfect speed, and hold your iPhone at the same height and angle is not easy. So, Arqball is in the process of raising capital through Kickstarter to build turntables, which they call a “stage” (see below). By placing the object on the stage and flipping the switch, the object rotates at the optimal speed for Arqball Spin to capture the object from all angles. The iPhone sits alone, on a tripod (I’d recommend picking up a Glif, too), and doesn’t move. The friendly folks at Arqball overnighted me one of their prototypes, and I spent the weekend at Historic St. Mary’s City making “Spins” of various objects from the lab. In short, I think this is a great tool, that archaeologists will find useful, both from analytical and cultural heritage perspectives.

The free app currently only works on the iPhone, although I am assured that an Android version will roll out sooner rather than later. Also, they are working on a way to make the software compatible with DSLR cameras that have video capability. The app itself is easy to use, and the process of creating a spin is quick: set the object up on the turntable, align your iPhone on the tripod, flip the switch, and hit the record button. It takes a few minutes, and then presto, you have a spin. You can then share the spin on all your favorite social services. You do want to make sure you provide a background that is the same color as the stage: in most cases this is white, but you can place a flat surface on top of the stage that matches the background, in case you want to go with black or orange or whatever. Currently within the app, you can zoom in and move the image and add a title and notes to the image. You can also immediately share the image on all your favorite social media sites.

The spins are housed on Arqball’s own system. Rest assured, you maintain rights to the product. Spins can be spun on iPhones and iPads with your finger, or on the web with your cursor. You can also embed these spins in websites (as demonstrated below), making them a great tool for digital engagement purposes. Storage is free for 25 uploaded spins, although you can capture as many as you like on your phone, or $4.95 a month for unlimited share spins: an negligible fee when compared to the overall costs of 3D technology. They also offer custom enterprising plans, which may be ideal for some of you museums out there.

The turntable is a fairly simple product. About 3 inches tall and five inches in diameter, it is made of durable materials. While I wouldn’t drop it, I would be fine carrying it in a bag in the field. Since mine was a prototype, it didn’t have a bottom. It runs on 5 AA batteries, meaning it is a portable device. It has a tiny on-off switch, and the speed is calibrated for the optimal picture. My only concern regarding durability is the switch: it sticks out, and I imagine it could snap off easily. Otherwise, it seems like a sturdy piece of equipment.

I used the turntable on a number of artifacts at the labs at Historic St. Mary’s City. We started off simple, with a pitcher that had been mended together. Set up was easy, the spin was easily executed:

Things got more challenging, however, when I tried to spin objects that had no flat or solid base. A 3D rendering of the Jew’s Harp, for example, is not very exciting when laid on the turntable: it is more or less a 2D object that’s spinning. Figuring out how to make it stand up was tricky, and I’m not entirely satisfied with how it looks using foam. I’d much rather figure out a way to make the object “float” by using the whitespace function. This means that I need to find a way to make completely white or solid color supports, possibly from modeling clay or something like that.

The 3D application, however, is still phenomenal. The best example of how this provides utility that regular photos doesn’t is the spin of the Native American pipe bowl. No 2D photo will be able to capture the entire design on the bowl. A spin, however, allows you to see and examine the entire design as it wraps around the bowl. This could be helpful, therefore, both as a digital museum display, but also as a research tool. Consider how often people post images through list serves of various artifacts from all different angles: a spin would let an archaeologist quickly share an artifact with another across the country. An additional feature that is coming in the next app upgrade, labeling, will make this product even more applicable to digital heritage. This will allow labels to be added to spots on the object, that appear and disappear as the object rotates. Imagine being able to highlight the various parts of a wine bottle or design motifs on ceramics: it would make teaching about these objects more tangible (see what I mean here).

There are also some applications for field use. Fortunately for me, Historic St. Mary’s City currently has active excavations going on at the Anne Arundel site, where the museum’s new research labs and visitor center will be located. I stopped by, unannounced, to test the stage in a way that it isn’t advertised to be used: as a panorama tool. I jerry rigged a stand for my iPhone using the same foam used to hold the artifacts, and placed it on top of the stage. The stage went into their excavation units, near where they had some profile walls exposed. I hit the button, and, while the archaeologists continued working, got a wonderful panorama shot of the profile walls and other parts of the ongoing excavation. It took 5 minutes. This could be a wonderful additional use of the technology: by adding a screw in the base that accepts tripod attachments, the turntable could be used as a wonderful tool for capturing panoramas. This would be great for field work for getting shots of in units or of an entire excavation site. I do also wonder about the speed setting, which may not be optimal for panoramic shots like this: the auto-spin that is pictured on the website moves much too quickly to see the image. A panorama speed setting might be something to consider adding.

In all, these two tools combined, the app and the turntable, make for a great archaeological tool. The best part is, when compared to more advanced 3D tools, it is outrageously cheap. The app is free. The hosting is free or $4.95 a month, depending on how much spinning you think you’ll be doing. The stage is the most costly item: they are projecting that it will retail at $80, but a $60 donation to their Kickstarter campaign gets you one for free (they have less then a week to go, so consider helping them out). While it doesn’t provide for complete 360 degree capture, what it does capture, for the price, portability, durability, and ease of use makes this an incredibly practical tool for any archaeologist or museum professional who is looking for new and innovative ways to share their research and collections with the public.



  1. Molly Swords
    May 14, 2012

    Very cool!  

  2. Bernard K. Means
    May 15, 2012

    Interesting.  Can you get a full 360 scan of the object?  Or do you miss the base and the top?  Certainly seems a plethora of 3D out there.

    • Terry Brock
      May 15, 2012

      Bernard – you can’t. You miss the base and top. Obviously, you can orient the camera to get a more top down 3D image, but there will always be components of the object that you won’t get. It’s certainly not perfect, but for what it does it does pretty well, and it does it quickly and cheaply. So, if you had a whole bunch of stuff you wanted done, you could easily set up an assembly line and move through them very quickly. Not to mention, it is easy to embed and share on the web, which makes it an affordable, quick, and easy tool for small museums to use to do something fancy for limited cost.

      And yes…3D has apparently hit the big time, whether for archaeology or otherwise.

      Thanks for reading!!

      • Bernard K. Means
        May 15, 2012

        Good to know.  Certainly can give you color which is difficult to do with Next Engine!

  3. John Muccigrosso
    May 15, 2012

    So it’s like 15-yr-old Apple QT3D technology?

    Snark aside, from your code, it’s clear that these are a series of jpegs that are being rapidly flipped between via some javascript. What about existing 3D file formats?

    Ditto for panoramas. These have been around for years. Sure, it’s easier now to create them, but what’s the advantage with this approach? Again, where are the standard filetypes we can share?

    • Terry Brock
      May 16, 2012

      The ease at which they are created is the advantage, as is the low cost of the tech. The primary application I see for this are small museums on budgets that would like to display artifacts on the web in a creative and unique way. The panorama is simply another way to share something with the public that they may not ordinarily see, in a way they may not ordinarily see it. As for existing 3D file formats, that’s a question you’d probably have to take up with the developers (I’ll give them a ping). I imagine they chose this format because it made the technology easy to produce and easy to capture with only the iPhone. But I don’t know enough about the inner-workings of 3D technology or the app to know for sure. My focus here was largely on the ease of use, affordability, and applicability for digital public engagement. Thanks for reading and your comment!

    • Jason
      May 16, 2012

      Hi John,

      You are correct that our current system represents the 3D object as a series of images. We see that as a major advantage of our approach over more traditional 3D modeling tools that don’t provide a reliable user experience. Additionally, the ease of use and simplicity of our capture/edit/share workflow is novel. Why didn’t QT3D ever take off? They were always very hard to create and view!

      We will be rolling out features in the coming months that let you export spins in a variety of formats (animated GIF, SWF, iBook Author widget, etc.) along with 3D surface meshes (OBJ, 3DS). We expect those features will help disrupt the 360 photography, 3d scanning, QTVR space even more!

      Does your application require the surface geometry?

      Thanks for your interest and feedback!



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