Transform your smartphone into a mobile 3D scanner

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Researchers from ETH Zurich's Computer Vision and Geometry Group transformed a smartphone into a portable digital scanner. In the form of an app, the 3D mobile technology allows users to snap pictures on the fly and scan objects, from a statue to a piece of furniture, or even a person. It also enables scanning in outdoor environments to model arbitrary objects or scenes.

Cutting-edge technology for everyone

"I think our technology and further developments along these lines will lead in the near future to everyone being able to capture realistic visual 3D representations of objects and scenes as easily as photographs are taken today. The impact will be comparable to that of photography today," says Prof. Marc Pollefeys. Solutions for 3D scanning already exist but have required dedicated 3D scanning hardware. However, the idea is to make three-dimensional scanning as easy as taking pictures - a significant and practical benefit for hobbyists and the do-it-yourself crowd, without design or engineering degrees. Instead of taking a conventional photo, the user simply moves his phone around the object of interest and after a few motions a 3D model appears on the screen. As all calculations are performed directly on the phone, the user gets immediate feedback and can select additional viewpoints to cover missing parts of the 3D model. This is an important advantage compared to solutions that 'batch-process' all the images in the cloud at a later time. The technology is becoming more and more pervasive not only in daily life, but also in the fields cultural heritage and commerce.

The potential to reshape industries

3D scanning and printing are eliciting growing interest from business and industry. Companies grapple with the implications of this relatively low-cost duplicating method. Some pundits consider the technology the spark that will launch the next industrial revolution. 3D reconstruction of existing objects will break down current barriers in ad-hoc object reproduction, as no knowledge of computer design software is needed to recreate (or remix) and existing object. The Boston Consulting Group believes that 3D printing will prove a game-changer for large sections of industry, and 3D reconstruction is its natural counterpart. "In short, 3D printing is on a fast track to mainstream adoption - and the time for companies to weigh the ramification for their business is now." Hearing-aid manufacturers, for example, are producing some custom-fitted ear pieces from scanned molds of patients. The technology will force many corporations to rethink their businesses and business models.

Computer vision and cultural heritage

Prof. Pollefeys is convinced that the new digital technique which his group presents in Sydney can also modify the way we preserve and digitize cultural assets, make it accessible to all and unlock the potential for its re-use. The technology combining computer vision, 3D modeling and virtual reality can be used by archaeologists and other cultural heritage professionals. This new technology is a key step to fill new digital libraries like Europeana a new digital library, archive and museum of the European Union. Additionally, museums could build exact replicas so that visitors could touch and handle precisely simulated objects without damaging the real artefact. Archaeologists could create virtual copies of artefacts immediately on the excavation site, with nothing more than their smartphone. A big potential market may be 3D portraiture whereby people would be able to either generate their own busts or order a personal statuette online. Computers can enhance, morph or tweak the models before printing opening up space for creative play and editing. The result is a new version of the thing itself, but built from resin or starch.

While the presented technology requires nothing more than installing an app to turn a mobile phone into a 3D scanner, wide adoption will take some time as companies find ways to build commercial services around the technology. Already now 3D models can be uploaded to online 3D printing services and duplicates received by post a few days later.

Watch the video on how 3D mobile scanning works:

The Computer Vision and Geometry Group (CVG)
ETH's CVG is one of the leading research groups world-wide in extracting 3D geometric information from images. The group is currently working on projects including 3D city reconstruction, autonomous micro-aerial vehicles, video-based driver assistance, image-based geo-localization and dynamic scene reconstruction.

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