How one artist is heading underwater for inspiration with Deep 3D
October 01 2021
By Tim Deakin
Simon Brown is the man behind Deep 3D – an incredible new collection of holo-NFT artworks that have been given new life using state-of-the-art desktop AR technology. MuseumNext caught up with Simon to find out more about how he combines passions for diving, art and photogrammetry, and why he’s excited about the potential for the holo-NFT projects he’s been working on with the team at The Morpheus Project.
For most people, the likelihood of ever diving down into the dark depths of the ocean to tour a shipwreck is slim. Yet, admiring the incredible detail of one of Simon Brown’s 3D photogrammetry images is enough to make any ship, munition or other sunken treasure feel almost tangible.
Having won the 2020 RPS Science Photographer of the Year Award for his ortho photo of wreck of the SS Thistlegorm, Simon is regarded as one of the most accomplished proponents of photogrammetry in the world. His most famous ortho photo was created in 2017 as part of a project to survey and document shipwrecks in Egypt’s Red Sea. Over a six-day shoot Simon expertly captured not only the external surfaces of the wreck but also the cargo deck, saloon and captain’s quarters in meticulous and minute detail. Over 24,000 images and 65 production days later and his ortho photo of the Second World War cargo ship, complete with two locomotives, a fleet of motorbikes and tons of munitions was complete.
Fast-forward to 2021 and the SS Thistlegorm is one of four underwater artefacts to be brought to holographic life and currently on display via The Morpheus Project as holo-NFTs (Non-Fungible Token). The Morpheus Project uses innovative Desktop AR technology to convert Simon’s ortho-photos into immersive, Augmented Reality NFT artworks that requires nothing more than a pair of 3D glasses once you’ve downloaded the software on a computer or mobile device.
“Ever since I ran my first dive through photogrammetry, it’s fair to say it’s been an obsession. Photogrammetry is where creativity, art and data really come together and that’s hit my sweet spot. The beauty of photogrammetry and then converting this data into an Holo-NFT is that it can be used to capture a moment in time – recording every fine detail and making it permanently accessible in an immersive, visual way.
“In my working life, we now use photogrammetry to capture road traffic accidents, documenting crash sites in forensic detail so that a closed road can be cleared and reopened quickly without losing the evidence needed to establish details of the crash itself. In my artistic life, photogrammetry (and subsequently the holographic representations made by The Morpheus Project) serves to create valuable artefacts that have cultural value and can continue to educate those not able to dive down to the ocean bed.”
“When I first came across the team at The Morpheus Project and learnt a little more about what they were creating on their platform, it grabbed my attention immediately. The idea of holographic representations of my 3D models serves to enhance that visual experience. And because all you need is a 50p pair of 3D glasses to be able to enjoy the Desktop AR technology, it’s really doing something quite good in an accessible way.
“What I like about Augmented Reality is that the price of access generally isn’t as high as VR. While I like VR in many respects, it obviously requires costly hardware and creates something of a walled garden. Accessibility is important because I really feel there’s an inherent value in helping non divers to be able to experience and understand what is down there lying on the sea bed from a cultural heritage perspective.
“Historically, photos have been made available in books or blown up for use in visitors centres or museums for people to see. Yet with this technology we are now able offer more detail and a more immersive experience that allows for exploration and a sense of really travelling through these sites.”
Not only has Simon’s work been of great value to research projects and in helping him win awards for his ortho photos but they have also proved to be of great value to museums and cultural institutions. Historic Scotland currently retains the imagery, data and records from one of his earlier dives, which he explains captured a wreck at just the right time:
“I was fortunate enough to complete a dive and map a wreck just a few months before it was stripped of its brass and valuable materials by another dive group. Having the artefact in its pristine condition in 3D can be a valuable asset indeed: it can be studied long into the future using these detailed images. Not only that but our use of GPS positioning software and sonar to geolocate the size and scale of wrecks means that cargo, weapons and munitions can all be accurately identified and, in many cases, we can forensically investigate to find the stories and secrets behind wrecks and disaster sites.”
Simon’s Deep 3D collection on The Morpheus Project also includes a Mk VIII torpedo found during a sonar survey. Containing roughly 750lbs of high explosives and scheduled to be blown up by the Royal Navy, Simon had the opportunity to dive it and document it just before it was blown up.
“This capturing of a moment in time is important because the site itself no longer exists. Having been the subject of a controlled explosion for safety reasons, the only record we now have is in digital form. But because of the incredible detail and data of the photogrammetry and holo-NFT techniques we’ve used, the torpedo can still be studied and it can continue to provide value to historians, art lovers and divers.
“Capturing things in this way gives us an insight into what could have been done with other sites that have suffered cultural destruction. The fact that we have GPS software integrated into the data also gives us pinpoint accuracy on the whereabouts of the site for future reference. With the combination of photos and GPS data you can create a 3D model that is incredibly accurate and is of both scientific and artistic value in documenting a place and time as an artefact in itself.”
The appeal of holo-NFTs and the protection of intellectual property
Just a year before discovering photogrammetry, Simon had stepped away from a successful career as a science and nature photographer after becoming disillusioned with repeated infringements of copyright on his work and a number of draining efforts to prevent his images from being stolen.
Asked about whether the growing popularity of NFTs and the attribution of value to digital art played a role in his work with The Morpheus Project, he says,
“It certainly piqued my interest. When I was first approached by The Morpheus Project and they showed me what they can do with the holographic modelling and how value would be retained in the NFT as a digital asset, it was certainly an interesting proposition.”
By definition, Non-Fungible Tokens are “one-of-a-kind” assets in the digital world that can be bought and sold as property. As digital tokens they represent digital certificates of ownership with owner records stored via blockchain and therefore impossible to forge.
“I think that any effort to protect artists and creators in this way has to be commended. In recent years it is often difficult to retain intellectual property and generate direct revenue from it.
“You do need a mechanism to support artists and content creators doing the work, or similarly to protect those who have invested in collections like museums and galleries. If NFTs and innovative platforms like The Morpheus Project are able to move the needle on this then I’m all for it.
“It’s the opposite of freedom of expression and creativity to have to fight against people stealing your work. That’s the sad thing about working in the artistic space at times. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to share my work and I look forward to seeing how the Morpheus Project grows and evolves in the future.”
And what next for Simon’s Deep 3D adventures?
“I like to find hidden gems that are yet to be investigated and that have stories for us to discover. From Cold War aircraft crash sites to sunken leisure yachts, the range of previously unexplored and unexplained targets are intriguing to me.”