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Designing an Interactive 3D Ear From Scratch


March 1, 2023


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3D ear render by Rubert Enberg and N4 Studio


3D modelling and visualisation play a key role in marrying anatomy and technology

Follow along as designer Rupert Enberg takes us through his creative process and implementation from concept to final form for Resonate.

Anatomical accuracy in 3D modelling is vital, making it, in my experience, one of the more challenging aspects of the craft. But there are certain tools and approaches that I’ve found can assuage most difficulties in situations like this one working with Resonate.

A good place to start is by considering which features of anatomy are to be highlighted: skeletal, soft tissue, facial structure, etc. And functional requirements of the model: animation, static or dynamic, illustrative, stylised renders or photo-realistic. 

How I approach a project

If I can give any advice, it’s to not overcomplicate things. Take advantage of any tools at your disposal. Scripts, macros, assets. If they make the journey from A to B more direct, use them. When I get a hold of a brief, the first thing I do is scour my library to see if I have any references that might be relevant to the project. Then I move on to external information.

Anatomy is one of those categories that has extensive and high-quality online resources like medical illustrations and 3D scans. Since the final imagery for this project was to be implemented by both medical professionals and consumers (clients/patients) it was essential to factor each party into my approach and include each audience in my research.

Reaching multiple audiences 

Medical illustrations are typically used by doctors and medical professionals to explain anatomy and procedure to two distinct groups:

  • Group A - Fellow medical professionals
  • Group B - Patients, consumers, and others outside of the industry

Working with audiologists to dissect such illustrations, we discovered that traditionally, this imagery is exaggerated to ensure it’s easily digested by patients, consumers, and those without a degree in medicine. However, the exaggerated imagery proved to be almost redundant to those with a deeper understanding of true anatomy. Therein lies the challenge: a large familiarity gap between groups A and B.

Exaggerated Medical Illustration of Human Ear

My modelling toolkit

I have a variety of software on rotation; what I end up using depends on the subject matter and intended results. If along the way I discover a new software that I feel will optimise time spent between concept to model, I’ll add that to my repertoire too.

Rhino is my go-to when tackling anything with freeform surfacing. For organic sculpting, I opt for ZBrush. And sometimes, I combine the two. However, I do think of Rhino somewhat like a swiss-army knife as it can read and write for multiple file formats.

Understanding the ear…

I found what I deemed to be an anatomically correct model of an ear, including the outer, middle, and inner components. It was a great starting point. Until I consulted with an audiologist, a trusted member of Group A. They pointed out multiple issues; proportion, shape, distances, geometrical bone structure. It was all off. As a member of Group B, I turned to an exaggerated illustration which made the discrepancies easier to comprehend. 

…and refining it

Heading over to Rhino, I opened and converted the reference mesh to a T-spline surface. Converting to a T-spline allows me to edit, manipulate, and create new geometry. A perk of using T-splines in Rhino is that you can further convert T-splines into Rhino surfaces which streamlines the process that much more.

Additionally, having a T-splines model in Rhino simplifies the transition to ZBrush, if that’s the intended next stage — as I mentioned earlier, if there’s a way to make the process more direct, take it — which in this case, it was. An even, well-laid-out quad model allows the use of the ZModeler brush, which can be sculpted later. This is exactly how I took the original ear mesh from basic asset to finished model, ready for visualisation and rendering.

Detailed visualisation

During the visualisation stage, we define a project’s messaging and artistic aesthetic. Resonate’s imagery was to be elegant, understated, and uncluttered while emphasising the middle and inner ear components — elegant minimalism; entirely appropriate considering the subject matter. The technology illustrated was sophisticated and discrete, with both descriptors playing a part in the final look.

HDRI vs physical lighting

Generally speaking, HDRI can cast unrealistic shadows and light fall off which, in this case, could affect the perception and overall anatomical accuracy. But both HDRI and physical lighting have unique benefits and can be used in conjunction to achieve a fantastic result.

Depending on how many samples you need to get the correct image quality, I may lean in favour of an HDRI environment. The more transparent and translucent materials you have in your scene the longer it will take to resolve the final image.

The most important aspect of visualisation in both 3D and physical photography studios is that when you change the shot, you change the lighting, too. For Resonate, we used a “one shot” approach for the animation; a 360-degree rotation encompassing all elements.

Universal yet unique

While so much of this general workflow is applicable to a broad spectrum of briefs, much of the process I went through to reach the final result was totally unique and specially tailored to Resonate’s desired end shots and animations. This project highlighted the importance of having a comprehensive yet specialised skill set. I used this to my advantage which I believe is evident in the high-quality result achieved and a testament to the efficacy of my approach.

Interested in discussing the applications of 3D in your business? Let's talk.

Rupert Enberg


Rupert Enberg

Head of Visual Innovation




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