Virtual Equivalents of Real Objects (VEROs): A proposal for a new type of museum collectible
AbstractComputer-rendered three-dimensional models provide a range of beneficial roles to museums. Massively multiuser online virtual worlds, created for entertainment and social networking, might provide an additional and complementary way for museums to use of 3D models. Currently, virtual-world goods make poor collectibles because they can be replicated many times by a service provider. This issue would be solved by Virtual Equivalents of Real Objects (VEROs), which would be created using 3D scans of rare or unique objects in the real world. In any VERO-supported software application, a VERO would exist as the single representative of a uniquely identified real object; they could not, by definition, be duplicated within a virtual-world setting. In this way, real-world collectability would be translated to virtual-world collectability. VEROs are abstract entities that should not be confused with their 3D-model associates. A museums consortium could establish a service exchange for VERO assignment and transactions. The service exchange, which would operate under the auspices of the museums consortium, would also function to assure the authenticity of VEROs. VEROs would be sold to recover some or all of the expenses of 3D-model production. Recent technological advances are now enabling the mass production of 3D-model representations of real objects. Furthermore, large numbers of 3D models have already been generated from museums for the purpose of research and promoting collections. It would therefore not be difficult to populate the service exchange with models suitable for VEROs.
Keywords: 3D model, 3D model repository, 3D scanning, collector, virtual world, virtual ownership
Computer-rendered three-dimensional models can be used to enhance the educational and entertainment role of museums in a number of important ways (Wojciechowski et al., 2004; Woods et al., 2004; Styliani et al., 2009; Bruno et al., 2010; Swartout et al., 2010; Sylaiou et al., 2010; Dawson et al., 2011). By providing a digital representation and record of important objects and sites, they can also play a role in the preservation of our cultural and scientific heritage (Remondino, 2011). Perhaps most importantly, 3D models can allow collections to be viewed by anyone in the world with an online connection, helping to justify the use of public funds for the upkeep of those collections. These models can therefore facilitate collections-based research by allowing experts to examine and compare large numbers of different objects without having to go to the trouble of visiting collections or borrowing material (Doerr et al., 2010; Wheeler et al., 2012).
With recent advances in 3D-scanning technology, it is now possible to generate many 3D-model representations of objects in the real world at a relatively low cost. Not only are these models faithful to the original form, but the original texture and color can also be included without much additional labor (Andrade et al., 2012; Nguyen et al., 2014). The relative ease of production has enabled a number of museums and collection holders to begin generating significant numbers of 3D models from their collections (http://www.3d-fossils.ac.uk; http://www.ucl.ac.uk/3dpetriemuseum/3dobjects; https://umorf.ummp.lsa.umich.edu/wp; http://aves3d.org.). As the technology continues to become cheaper and more widely used, the production of 3D models sourced from museum collections is certain to carry on increasing.
Museum-sourced 3D models are usually incorporated into virtual reality software that is specifically engineered for education or research. However, these models, which are generated from rare and valuable objects, could become collectible if they were also included in online virtual worlds, by which we mean any massively multiuser 3D environments created for entertainment and/or social networking. The collection of virtual objects is already an important market force operating through virtual-world applications (Guo & Barnes, 2007; Superdata, 2012; Mäntymäki & Salo, 2013). Although many of these virtual objects have specific, game-related functions in game-oriented worlds, in social-networking worlds (e.g., Second Life) they tend to be cosmetic. Indeed, virtual possessions often tend to closely emulate the functionality of real possessions (Lehdonvirta, 2012). For example, virtual possessions can be used to communicate social identities and affiliations in much the same way as real possessions (Lehdonvirta, 2009).
Some virtual worlds even have virtual economies, where service providers deliberately limit the availability of certain kinds of objects in order to raise their value and collectability. In the Finnish virtual world Habbo, the rarity of an object tends to be an important motivating factor behind consumer choices (Lehdonvirta et al., 2009). Accordingly, items that are only available for a limited period or in a finite quantity are respectively referred to as “collectibles” and “super rares” by the Habbo user community.
However, virtual objects do not yet appear to have strong appeal for serious collectors of rare and unique items. This must be, at least in part, because online software companies are free to create any number of replicas of virtual items at no expense or labor, thus potentially deflating their value and therefore their collectability. Even when a service provider deliberately suppresses the abundance or availability of an item, there is no guarantee that the item will remain scarce in the future. Potential collectors are also likely to be discouraged by the lack of assurance that they have for their virtual assets (Tarsa, 2012). Virtual belongings can rarely be transferred between different virtual worlds, and no reimbursements are offered when the service is terminated.
2. Virtual Equivalents of Real Objects (VEROs)
One way of making virtual objects much more collectible would be to anchor each virtual object to a distinct object in the real world. Accordingly, any 3D-model representation of a uniquely identified real object could be under the virtual ownership of only one party at any one time. This does not imply any form of actual ownership or copyright entitlement to the 3D model; “virtual ownership” or “virtual property” refers only to an experiential component of a virtual world, software application (Horowitz, 2007; Tarsa, 2012).
We term this collectible the Virtual Equivalent of a Real Object (VERO). VEROs could not, by definition, be duplicated within a virtual-world setting. In this way, real world collectability would be translated to virtual-world collectability. A VERO would therefore be the one and only virtual-world representative of a uniquely identified object from the real world. For this reason it is appropriate that VERO is also an Italian term for “genuine” and “authentic.” VEROs would mainly function to enable recreational collectors to display and manipulate 3D models of real museum objects within massively multiuser virtual worlds.
VEROs would be abstract entities; they should not be confused with their associated 3D models. This is made apparent from the fact that more than one 3D model of the same real object (generated using different 3D-imaging techniques) could be made available for a particular VERO. Although VERO-supported applications would grant user privileges to the VERO owner in virtual-world applications, the associated 3D models could be freely viewable to anyone for non-commercial purposes—chiefly research and education. VEROs would therefore complement rather than compete with the already existing functions of 3D models generated from museum collections.
A service exchange, which would operate under the auspices of a museums consortium, could be used for the sale of VEROs to collectors (figure 1). The 3D models could be sourced from 3D model repositories that are set up by the same museums consortium for research and education purposes (Doerr et al., 2010; Wheeler et al., 2012). In addition to uploading a 3D model to the repository, a museum would be able to register the associated VERO on the service exchange. The VEROs could then be purchased by collectors. The VERO owner’s information would be relayed from the service exchange to a VERO-supported application that would be able to determine virtual ownership of any given VERO. Additional information regarding the VERO could also be presented by the service exchange, including related metadata. The VERO would be resaleable to other online users via the service exchange, allowing VERO collectors to potentially profit from the exchange, as well as giving the VERO the same pecuniary properties as a real, collectible object. The operating, maintenance, and expansion costs of the service exchange would be met by taking a percentage of the sales of the VEROs.
Third-party VERO-supported, virtual-world applications would likely be the primary conduit for VERO collectors to display and engage with their VEROs. In order to incorporate VEROs into these applications, the service exchange should provide an application programming interface (API) to allow third-party software companies to easily access the VERO-related information. Most Web developers expect an API from a Web service, with the number of Web APIs rapidly increasing (Vitvar et al., 2012). Making a well-documented API for developers to communicate with the service exchange will facilitate the creation of VERO-supported software. An API can also allow enterprising researchers and educators a means for developing their own Web applications from the metadata associated with the VEROs.
Any museum that participated with a service exchange would have to enter a contract or agreement that would prevent the allocation of virtual ownership rights (noting that these are distinct from 3D-model copyrights) of each real object to more than one party, with appropriate compensation offered when and where errors occur. This would mean a museum could only register a VERO once from a uniquely identified object. And in the event that more than service exchange is available, only one of them could be used to register any particular VERO. When a real object is registered as a VERO more than once, it can no longer be an authentic VERO. In order to prevent these VERO duplications, museums would be encouraged to assign globally unique identifiers to their real-world objects. This should also include auditing and vouchering the real objects used to make VEROs.
The 3D-model representations of real objects are often impossible to copyright because 3D scanning is largely or completely an automated process. It would therefore seem possible for third-party companies to be able to use the 3D models for commercial purposes that are not in the interests of museums or VERO collectors, such as the creation of another service exchange. However, this should not be a problem because VEROs, and not 3D models, represent the assignment of virtual ownership under the auspices of a museum or collection holding. Without an affiliation to a network of museums, any third party that chooses to masquerade as a service exchange has no way of authenticating VEROs. Any such depository would represent nothing more than an assortment of digital objects. Therefore, a third party would have to engage with a legitimate service exchange in order to create software for VEROs. Likewise, VERO collectors would need to use a legitimate service exchange in order to gain virtual ownership of authentic VEROs.
The success of VEROs would therefore appear largely to depend on the collaboration of a global consortium of museums around a centralized registration system—a single service exchange. Multiple service exchanges, which would act as competing registration applications, could potentially undermine the VERO. For example, in a world with many service exchanges, it should be relatively easy for a third party to masquerade as a legitimate exchange. Furthermore, commercial software companies are also much less likely to incorporate VEROs into their applications if there is more than one service exchange with which they have to engage. It would therefore be better if museums agreed to use a single exchange or, at least, a network of closely cooperating exchanges.
Security issues pertaining to VEROs can be addressed in multiple ways. The specific details relating to the security of the API, and any possible digital rights management applied to the 3D models, would be decided by the consortium of museums. We suggest a system where VERO ownership is managed by the service exchange; every VERO collector would be an account holder with the exchange. Any third party that signs up to use the API would have to agree to the digital license conditions, which would stipulate that the 3D models can only be incorporated into VERO-orientated software (i.e., where VERO account holders would have virtual ownership privileges to the VEROs listed in their account). Any party that breaks the license conditions can be readily blocked from the service exchange.
3. The market potential of VEROs
Although virtual assets are often viewed as worthless due to their abstract nature, there has been a recent and fast-growing trend amongst online users for purchasing virtual items with real money (Guo & Barnes, 2007; Lehdonvirta et al., 2009; Shelton, 2010; Myers, 2012; Mäntymäki & Salo, 2013). The global market for virtual goods reached $14.8 billion in 2012 (Superdata, 2012). The popularity of purchasing virtual goods for real money has enabled a number of software companies to make most or all of their income from the sale of virtual goods. For example, the bulk of the profits made by IMVU—a social-networking site in which virtual items are shown off by avatars in a 3D environment—are generated from the sale of virtual goods to their approximately three million active users. This business model proved lucrative for IMVU, allowing it to double its revenue over one year to a US $25 million run rate (Hodge, 2009; Rusli, 2010). Towards the end of 2009, around 175,000 virtual goods were being sold daily on IMVU, usually for between US $0.50 and US $1.00 each (Hodge, 2009). Individual virtual goods can also be sold for large amounts of real money. For example, a nightclub named “Club Neverdie,” set in the virtual world of “Entropia Universe,” sold for US $635,000 in 2010 (Bates, 2010).
But as far as we know, none of the virtual items for sale on any gaming or social-networking site have an equivalent presence in the real world. In virtual worlds with VERO economies, virtual possessions would not be duplicated; no single item is added without first generating a 3D model of its real-world equivalent. VEROs therefore provide the potential for a new type of online experience in which users can feel that their virtual possessions are more authentic than in a typical virtual-world experience. For this reason, VEROs should appeal to a potentially large and untapped market that is more oriented towards rare and unique objects.
Currently, most virtual items are restricted to single software applications, becoming worthless when the application is no longer available. By contrast, VEROs could be incorporated into a number of different software applications. Consequently, VERO collectors would have much greater assurance of their VERO assets. Nonetheless, it may be that some potential collectors of VEROs would still be put off by issues of virtual ownership. Virtual objects that are paid for with real money are seldom, if ever, under the actual ownership of the player or user, who has few or no rights to the digital entity in the real world (Horowitz, 2007; Tarsa, 2012). Instead, the player/user is a licensee of a service that provides a sense of ownership in a virtual setting; ownership rights to all virtual entities are retained by the service provider through the terms of service and/or end-user license agreement (Duranske, 2008). In this regard, VEROs would be no different to most other virtual objects. It would be impossible for VERO owners to own the associated 3D models when they belong in the public domain. However, it would be judicious to draw up a standard license agreement granting the virtual owner a right to the market value attached to a virtual possession (Tarsa, 2012). This may attract many more collectors, some of whom might even use VEROs as a form of investment.
If VERO assets could be assured, there would be a number of reasons for collectors of real-world objects—who make up about a third of North Americans and Europeans (Pearce, 1995)—to switch to virtual objects. No storage space or collection equipment is needed to collect VEROs. Also, there are no transportation costs; collectors can trade and display their VEROs from their homes. And VEROs are much more robust than their real-world counterparts, as they are digital entities that can be backed up multiple times; they do not require treatment or special storage conditions for preservation. Furthermore, in a virtual environment, objects can be scaled up in size so that fine detail and intricate morphology can be fully appreciated without a magnifying lens or microscope. These many advantages therefore may have important implications with respect to making the virtual equivalents of natural history specimens more collectable than their real-world counterparts. Real natural history specimens are often very fragile and usually require expensive and specialist equipment to collect and observe in detail.
A centralized service exchange would provide another major benefit to collectors by enabling them to gauge the completeness and relative value of their collections. Collecting is a goal-oriented exercise in which collectors are motivated by the fact that they can get feedback of progress in the form of the quality and size of the collection itself (McIntosh & Schmeichel, 2004). However, progress is also largely measured by what they do not yet possess, as well as by what is and is not yet possessed by other collectors. In a real-world setting, a complete measure of relative or competitive progress is hard to evaluate because it is difficult to determine the number, diversity, and ownership of any or all items in a given collection category. By contrast, a VERO collection could be readily and accurately compared with any other VERO collection via the service exchange.
4. The reciprocal relationship between VEROs and museums
Despite their many benefits, 3D models can be expensive to produce in large numbers. The sale of VEROs may be able to play an important role in the recovery of some or even all of those expenses. Furthermore, some of the recovered expenses could be channeled into the production of more 3D models. Consequently, VEROs may lead to the production of many more 3D models than would otherwise have been produced. But even if VEROs provided little compensation for the overall 3D-model production costs of many museum objects, they may still be able to generate worthwhile funds from the many 3D models that will eventually be produced anyway.
It is unlikely that the VERO of every object type would be popular among collectors of VEROs. Some may be too common in the real world to be deemed valuable in virtual form. The most sought VEROs are almost certain to be the virtual equivalents of large, unique, and well-known real-world objects (dinosaurs, monuments, etc.). However, there are numerous possible ways to promote many of the more obscure but also rare museum objects. In this respect, museums are well suited to promote particular VEROs through exhibitions or permanent display space. Galleries could also be used to promote the general VERO mission (i.e., the free dissemination of 3D models sourced from public collections). Potential VERO collectors are less likely to cynically assume this is an exploitative venture when they are made aware of the not-for-profit nature of the enterprise. VERO-oriented displays could also be entertaining and educational for visitors. VEROs may also help to promote museum collections by encouraging collectors to become aware of the institutions that house and conserve the real-world equivalents of their virtual possessions. For this reason, VEROs might lead to a greater appreciation for the important role of museums in the preservation of our scientific and cultural heritage.
If VEROs were used to fund the generation of additional 3D models from museum collections, they would help provide useful and, in some cases, much-needed data to a global community of museum-based researchers. Three-dimensional models allow versatility in the way that image-based data is displayed and used (Laroche et al., 2008; Ch’ng, 2009; Faulwetter et al., 2013). Moreover, the theft, loss, and damage of valuable objects, many of which are very fragile, could be reduced as a result of the use and dissemination of 3D-model substitutes among researchers. This would also lead to a reduction in the handling and transportation costs of many objects.
5. The urgent case of natural history collections
Three-dimensional models would appear to be useful in many different aspects of research into material culture, including art history and archaeology (Laroche et al., 2008; Ch’ng, 2009; Doerr et al., 2010). However, we would like to highlight the potential role of VEROs in our field of expertise: natural history collections. This research area is an urgent case because the great majority of type specimens (the important specimens that are used for delimiting species) are located in museums in Europe and North America (Baum, 1996; Stork, 1997). This situation presents a major impediment to taxonomic and biodiversity-based research in the tropics, where a general lack of adequate reference collections compounds the already daunting challenge of documenting a megadiverse and poorly known biota (Balakrishnan, 2005; Weeks & Gaston, 1997). In recent years, there has been a rise in the proportion of the taxonomic workforce in tropical and subtropical regions, principally within Asia and Latin America (Costello et al., 2013), resulting in an even greater imbalance between the location of specimens and where they are most urgently needed. This problem needs to be addressed urgently because a large number of tropical species are threatened with extinction (Laurance, 1999; Achard et al., 2002; Laurance, 2007), and may go extinct before they are even discovered and described.
Museums and collection holdings therefore largely function as storehouses of poorly tapped morphological and biodiversity information. Small collections, which are often understaffed, are especially significant in this regard (Johnson & Musetti, 2000). Consequently, the specimens of unknown species are typically stored away for decades before they are discovered and described (Fontaine et al., 2012). Two recent and exemplary cases involve the discovery of new species of horned dinosaur from fossils that were stored away for over fifty (Evans & Shepherd, 2012) and nearly a hundred years (Farke et al., 2011).
The lack of good access to natural history collections has therefore made the work of biological taxonomists much more arduous (Weeks & Gaston, 1997; Godfray, 2002; Riedel et al., 2013). Accurate and well-resolved 3D models of specimens would allow the wealth of information locked up in natural history museums to be disseminated throughout the world, making it much easier for taxonomists from different regions to exchange knowledge and ideas about specimens. Although 3D models may not always provide enough detail for a taxonomic description, they would be an invaluable aid to identification. They would also promote a more rapid implementation of nomenclatural decisions (Wheeler et al., 2012).
But the task of generating 3D models for even a small proportion of the world’s specimens, which number around 2.5 billion (Duckworth et al., 1993), is far too expensive to fund through the budgets of natural history collection holders. VEROs may be able to contribute some of the funds for meeting those costs, but significant headway will also require novel and inexpensive techniques for producing large numbers of 3D models. In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards producing 3D models of biological specimens using x-ray microtomography (Metscher, 2009; Faulwetter et al., 2013; Zhang et al., 2010). However, this is a relatively expensive technique: costs per model are typically hundreds of dollars. New techniques are now allowing the production of 3D models using conventional light microscopes (Bhasin et al., 2012; Nguyen et al., 2014). This will dramatically reduce the time and expense of producing many different 3D models from large collections of small specimens.
Virtual worlds obviously still lack the realism of the real world. For this reason, improving the fidelity of virtual objects and scenery is a major driving force behind attempts to enhance virtual-world experiences (Noh & Sunar, 2009; Giard & Guitton, 2010). More relevantly, this drive for greater authenticity can extend to virtual consumption practices (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott, 2012). By providing a collecting experience that is anchored to real-world objects, VEROs may be able to provide an important step towards a more realistic and satisfying way of collecting in virtual worlds.
If VEROs became very popular, they should be able to help generate much-needed funds for the museum community. But the success of the VERO largely depends on the collaboration of a network of museums around a single, centralized service exchange. Open access to large numbers of VERO-registered 3D models, via a single API, should provide the necessary incentive for third-party software companies to incorporate VEROs into new and existing applications for entertainment and social networking. This would also provide the necessary assurance for VERO collectors, who would be more likely to invest in a commodity that has been incorporated into multiple software applications.
Three-dimensional models clearly help to enhance the education and research programs of museums. They also help to raise the public profile of museums by providing an entertaining and interactive visual medium through which an online audience can engage with a museum’s collection. Through their incorporation into massively multiuser virtual worlds, these 3D models might be able to play a role in the promotion of museums to a larger audience. VEROs may even ignite a general public enthusiasm for the important function that museums have as custodians of our scientific and cultural heritage.
We would like to thank Hans Klompen (Ohio State University) and Norm Johnson (Ohio State University), who provided useful advice and comments on drafts of the manuscript.
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