The RTI FoF: Reflectance Transformation Imaging Follow-on Funding project

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Humanities


In October 2012 the BBC website described the potential of citizen science - in this case many people from the public gaining expertise and working together on a given problem - to unlock the secrets of the oldest undeciphered writing. The feature received more than a million hits on the first day and 25,000 social media shares. Comments had to be closed as so many people were volunteering to take part. The RTI FoF project will enable the possible outcomes that so captured the public's attention to be realised, and more than that will produce a set of visualisation and citizen science tools relevant to many other academic, museological, law enforcement and commercial applications.

AHRC RTISAD and subsequent related projects by the same team have gathered a great deal of data suitable for re-use, and knowledge of all relevant technologies, ongoing research worldwide and the potential of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) in many contexts. These are all limited by the lack of an easy to use, free viewer that allows RTI data to be interacted with, annotated and shared on-line. This project will produce viewer software based on the experience gained in the AHRC RTISAD project and through our collaborators, and embed it in a citizen science framework and an iPad app to provide different forms of interaction with RTI data.

To gain the maximum benefit within a short time-frame, the project will explore a series of small case studies using robust Human Computer Interaction evaluation methods that match with small user groups. We also hope that this project will stimulate more commercial and academic research and development.

Case studies:

Proto-Elamite was used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran. We believe that the secret to its complexity lies in errors present in the texts. By using the computing technologies developed by the RTI FoF project citizen researchers from all backgrounds and across the world will be able to visualise and collaboratively compare and annotate the texts. A breakthrough could be imminent. This will also act as a mechanism to educate the public about ancient documents and specific problem solving methods.

Discussions between the RTISAD team and the Serious Organised Crime Agency identified law enforcement potential of the RTI tools and expertise developed for arts and humanities research on ancient documents and archaeological materials. This project will evaluate the new viewers in specific law enforcement contexts.

All museum specialists involved in RTISAD recognise the value of RTI for teaching and public engagement, particularly where objects are too fragile to be interacted with or remain in store out of view. RTI FoF will use the viewers to provide new forms of access to objects, primarily ancient textiles and cuneiform tablets. In the case of tablets the iPad viewer will run on iPad minis. This device matches the size and shape of many of the original tablets. By using the iPad's ability to track orientation in space (and potentially the pattern of light captured by the iPad camera) it will enable the user to replicate the interaction between light and shade used to read these enigmatic objects. No other device affords this perfect digital replication of a 5000 year old technology, and the name "tablet" makes it perfect!

RTISAD proved the value of RTI in visualising and interpreting ancient textiles. RTI FoF will explore the new viewers in modern textile and marketing contexts, through collaboration with researchers and students in textile and fashion business practice.

The RTISAD project continues to support a range of community heritage projects, via the expertise passed on by its staff and the equipment purchased. As in all other case studies the lack of an on-line viewer has restricted the potential of this and therefore RTI FoF will evaluate the new viewers on an on-going project with the Churches Conservation Trust.

Planned Impact

Our experience during RTISAD suggested that there was potential commercial value in RTI. By developing a case study in the field of textile design and fashion marketing we will explore the benefits to one possible unforeseen commercial domain. We have chosen this because of the proven value of RTI in representing ancient textiles and the need for rapid sharing of information in the commercial textiles sector. We see RTI as a useful, largely untapped component in the creative process which could have significant benefits for designers and artists.

We will also develop collaborations with other commercial contacts in the fields of engineering and the Digital Economy, and with commercial cultural heritage organisations such as Cultural Heritage Imaging. We see imaging and cultural heritage as two significant areas of commercial benefit to the UK and the RTI FoF project will build hitherto unforeseen capacity at their intersection and more broadly in each domain.

The primary government agency case study for this project is that with the Serious Organised Crime Agency. There is some history of collaboration between cultural heritage imaging and documentation specialists and similar researchers in law enforcement. But since RTISAD we have identified the unexpected but enormous potential value to forensics of our approaches, both in terms of increased efficiency in data gathering and in ease of sharing vital, carefully documented digital evidence. This was supported by a recent MSc dissertation (and now PhD) with which the project team were involved. We anticipate that the tools developed will also be evaluated by the Home Office, based on discussions with SOCA and on related work in the USA with law enforcement partners including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Our international connections mean that the tools produced would have an even greater impact.

We are working with a broad sweep of public and third sector partners on this project, building on RTISAD's efforts in this area. These include museums and a charitable trust. They will benefit in terms of additional public outreach tools and also, via the Ashmolean case study, in new resources for supporting higher education collaborations with the third sector. We have proven, again via RTISAD, that community heritage groups benefit from RTI but that the current viewer technology is a significant barrier. In these ways the culture and education of the UK will be enhanced.

The wider public will directly benefit through potential involvement in the citizen science component, and the community heritage project. More generally by providing a free, easy to use set of RTI interaction tools the general public will be able to undertake their own imaging research and sharing of interactive images. Via RTISAD we gained proof of the immediate impact of the technology on the public. It is a simple form of 'digital magic' that has an immediate impact. This has also been appreciated by the media. For example, our RTI work was the core element in a feature on digital archaeology broadcast on the Click Online BBC programme. It also features on a growing number of websites, and in articles in the press (newspapers, the Economist, and specialist publications such as British Archaeology).

All of the RTI FoF team share a passion for multidisciplinary research and will benefit from the opportunity to trial a well understood technology in new environments, learning more about its implications and practicalities, and engaging with a new, wider set of stakeholders. RTISAD indicated the value of such practice, with all research staff now working professionally in related fields.

The timing for this project is perfect. We have demonstrated the value of RTI, formed new collaborations, evaluated and proposed vital new advances. This new project will provide a step change in its use and we therefore expect significant impacts within a year of the project's conclusion.


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Title Creative RTI collaborations with artists 
Description The RTI FoF project allowed us to significantly extend the reach of our RTI work. This included engagement with a range of cultural heritage and other partners, including a number of artists. In turn it stimulated the production of new artworks. Whilst the project itself did not directly create these works it (and the earlier RTISAD project) provided equipment, expertise and software that directly facilitated these artistic collaborations. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact A range of "dirty RTI" artistic outcomes, particularly those by Ian Dawson and Louisa Minkin - the term itself was coined by a PhD student of the PI on RTISAD who developed novel RTI approaches, in part within the context of RTI FoF and RTISAD. 
Description We have created an on-line viewer for a particular form of digital imaging known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). The viewer fits within a very well developed framework for sharing image information that has a strong following within the cultural heritage sphere. In turn we have deployed an annotation mechanism and designed a workflow that allows people viewing the data to create comments. We have further developed the hardware that allows these data to be created and used the hardware to record and analyse a broad range of cultural heritage material. We have worked with partners from museums and galleries and also influenced related commercial activities that have reached a very large audience, and have also started to engage with industry who have cognate interests.
Exploitation Route The viewer is now ready for widespread adoption and we are actively working towards this, including by further engaging with academic, private and third sector partners. The project has also identified and shaped an appropriate annotation approach for RTI that has been shared and is starting to be adopted by other institutions. This annotation capability will be taken ahead as a result of ongoing collaborations with several partnerships developed via the project.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Retail

Description An extension was granted to the project end date until April 2015 The research has been employed in a broad range of cultural heritage organisations including museums and galleries. A much faster data acquisition approach was developed and shared.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Title Proto-Elamite Capture 
Description The project captured all accessible Proto Elamite tablets (those in the Louvre - c 1100 objects). This includes at least 150 previously unpublished tablets. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact A unique collection available for researchers worldwide - a key component of the project. 
Title RTI capture 
Description Created RTI data from the following collections: - Ashmolean Museum, cuneiform texts (c. 1000 objects) - Ashmolean Museum, Linear B tablets (c. 50 objects) - Ashmolean Museum, Aegean seals (c. 600 objects) - Ashmolean Museum, diverse objects (e.g., mummy masks etc.) - Manchester, John Rylands Library (c. 300 objects) - Louvre, cuneiform texts (c. 3000 objects) - Schøyen collection, Oslo (c. 2500 objects) - Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Museum (c. 600 objects) 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact C. 10 tb of data produced for CDLI. Very large numbers of tablets are now accessible online. 
Description COSCH EU Project 
Organisation University College London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The COSCH EU project to help young researchers in the area of cultural heritage imaging benefited from collaboration with Southampton as part of its imaging trials - with visitors from Belgium/UCL.
Collaborator Contribution Roman coins were imaged using the projects' facilities
Impact Data generated and new input to redesign of hardware and software for RTI capture
Start Year 2014
Title New dome designs 
Description RTISAD and RTI FoF together stimulated new imaging equipment development that has continued beyond the lifetime of the grants and been supported by additional innovation. Most recently these activities formed the focus of a pitch for commercial investment, display at the Consumer Electronics Show and subsequent imaging dome refinement and deployment for institutions such as Yale, the University of York and the Louvre. 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Requests to continue development and commissions for new equipment, including for a new project run by Jacob Dahl (Oxford, Co-I on the two RTI grants) 
Title RTI Viewer 
Description An online RTI viewer that works with IIP Image enabling high resolution interaction and annotation. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Considerable interest within the RTI community as this is an entirely plug-in free solution that runs on iOS as well as windows and other platforms. 
Title Refinement of viewer 
Description The viewer was further enhanced and has now been trialled in a number of new applications. The viewer is also being used to inform related software efforts to create a version with more storytelling components, providing additional functionality. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact There has been a proliferation of web-based RTI viewers and our work on this viewer is cited with respect to this.