July 31, 2014

Head in the Point Clouds

Sam Pfeifle

Sam Pfeifle was Editor of SPAR Point Group from September 2010 - February 2013.

At least one place where photogrammetry is replacing lidar

There's been a great deal of interest in how the newest photogrammetry software, creating point clouds and 3D models from digital photographs, compares with traditional laser scanning. In general, the verdict from industry long-timers is that the two technologies are mostly complementary. It's not an either/or discussion. Except when it is. 

I'm confident the entertainment and gaming marketplace has big potential for 3D data capture to really impact it, and so I try to stay on top of the FX web sites. Still, I was surprised to see the photogrammetry/lidar discussion play out so starkly in this article about the CGI used for the movie Lincoln

02.13.13.lincolnSee, essentially, they were using the Virginia Capitol building (please ignore that the linked article doesn't know the difference between "capital" and "capitol") in place of the federal Capitol building in Washington. Their fronts look the same, and so it was much easier to film in Richmond and have live shots of Lincoln giving his second inaugural address there, rather than in Washington, where there would be many more security hassles, etc. That meant CG extensions to make the Virginia building become the Washington building. 

And for that, they used photogrammetry. This is Lincoln visual effects supervisor Ben Morris and CG supervisor Mark Wilson talking about it:

To aid in the digital add-ons, Morris visited the Capitol Building in Washington to acquire still photography for photogrammetry reconstruction, since the real building could not easily be scanned. “Historically, lidar has played a big part in everyone’s lives,” says Morris, “but we’ve got some new in-house tools that let us actually go and shoot flat or spherical images for photogrammetric scene reconstruction. We used a combination of Photoscan and ImageModeler to reconstruct the Washington Capitol.”

The CG build began with an initial test using a Capitol Building stock model to see if it would line up with the Virginia version. When that looked promising, Framestore embarked on a fuller build with the photo reference. “What’s great about the photogrammetry approach is that you can photograph as much as you like with as many close-ups, essentially a load of pictures,” explains Wilson. “Then based on the shots you need, you can process the parts you need rather than going through the lidar which requires dense data. But with photogrammetry to actually capture your source material, you’re just clicking away with a camera. It’s very quick and easy to do.”

Well, yeah, that would be the benefit, wouldn't it. Also the fact that you don't have to have a $40,000+ laser scanner on hand. (I also really like that "historically, lidar has played a big part in everyone's lives," when, of course, lidar has only really existed for about 15 years. I mean, historically, the iPad has been really fun to play with, right?)

Now, no one's saying that computer graphics for movies represents a massive part of the laser scanning market, but it's something, and here's a very real case where photogrammetry and software has taken lidar's place. Is this a sign of things to come? Or is it actually an example of how complementary the two technologies really are? Really, lidar was overkill, wasn't it? Photogrammetry in this case - where you're only needing imagery, and 2D imagery at that, when it comes down to it - is the appropriate technology and makes 3D data capture both affordable and practical. 

If that increases the use of 3D data capture in general, that makes it only more likely that professionals dabbling in photogrammetry will eventually turn to laser scanning for more exacting jobs where precision matters, or maybe light isn't available. 

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Two more Kickstarter projects you need to know about

Yes, start-ups do still get funding the old-fashioned way (begging is popular, I think), but it's now becoming more common for tech firms to go the route of crowd-funding for cash to ramp up operations and 3D-related firms are starting to pop up all over the place there.

The most intriguing one this week is a company called Lynx Laboratories, which is pitching its Lynx A Camera, what they're billing as "the world's first point-and-shoot 3D camera." Whether or not my phone loaded with 123D Catch counts as a "point-and-shoot 3D camera" notwithstanding, they've got a pretty interesting pitch:

It's a light, plastic device shaped like a tablet. It has specialized, front-mounted optics including a 640x480 color camera and a 3D sensor. On the front, there's a large, 14" color LCD screen for an instant and accurate view of imaging results. You can navigate your captured models using joysticks, just like a videogame controller. The device has a powerful graphics card for capture/render and high-capacity storage. The battery is good for four hours. It fixes the annoying stuff (bad battery life, small screens, costly storage) of conventional cameras.

Personally, I haven't found a problem with battery life on digital cameras and "costly storage" is pretty a relative term when you can get 32 gig SD cards for $25 and I'm not sure why're they're comparing this with a conventional camera anyway, but I think that's beside the point. Basically, they've developed a completely self-contained scan-to-model camera that you can buy as part of this campaign for $1,999 (Interesting question: Do you have to pay sales tax if you "buy" something through Kickstarter? Technically you're being rewarded for your pledge. Is this a loophole?).

That's pretty hot.

Already, they've raised $36,187 of the $50k they fund at, and there are 41 days to go, so I'm assuming they'll hit their mark and then some. And why not? While we don't have any good idea of accuracy, there's nothing on the market like this all in one package. No laptop required here. Of course, that's the rub. The accuracy. The results they have as examples on the site are hardly engineering-quality. Are they even good enough for video games? Well, the cool piece there is that they sell a version that comes with motion-capture capabilities. Now THAT could prove useful, considering the way they do motion capture nowadays, with those suits and markers and what not. 

Motion capture with no markers and no post-processing? Someone's got to be into that. 

You can watch the full video of their pitch here:


Also of note this week is the DeltaMaker, yet another 3D printer (hopefully, they won't get sued by 3D Systems the way FormLabs has been). If you get in right now, you can grab one for $1,399, but it looks like they'll eventually sell for $1,600+. 

The pitch here is a combination of form and function. They say it's faster than other extrusion printers for the desktop, but they also try to sell just how pretty it is to watch it work. And, yeah, I guess it does look pretty cool, but I think this might be something of a stretch: "We see DeltaMakers prominently displayed in your living room, as your guests watch a reproduction of Venus de Milo arise over the course of a dinner party."

One thing that's actually really cool about this project is that it incorporates two pieces of technology that, themselves, started as Kickstarter projects, the linear bearing systems and the extrusion head. It's meta-Kickstarter!

And, in case you're wondering which is hotter, scanning or printing, know that this project is already at $95k, on its way to $107k as a goal, with 24 days to go. We'll see which of these projects has the greater momentum. 

For the full details on the DeltaMaker, check the video:


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SPARVlog: 3D and the Mars Curiosity Rover

I have to believe you're at least as excited about this Mars Curiosity Rover as I am. What an incredible feat of engineering and ingenuity. I'm quite literally fascinated by the new images coming back, and can never get enough about how we're continuing to explore the red planet. So, of course, I've explored just about every 3D imaging angle possible in learning about the mission for this week's SPARVlog.

Here, take a look:


Supporting materials:

• Use of lidar on the Phoenix Lander.

• View of the green lidar laser from the Phoenix.

• Follow the Curiosity on Twitter. No. Seriously. Do this.

• Nice piece from Desktop Engineering on the use of Siemens software on the Curiosity.

• Teledyne Technologies supplied cameras that will be used for 3D positioning as well (found this after I made the video).

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The impact 3D printing can have

I've written plenty about 3D printing, and any number of laser scanning professionals have wondered why. Many of you are on board with me when I say 3D printing will drive the market for 3D data (as judging by the poll respondents on our home page), but plenty more think it's a technology that has been around for years, and still hasn't taken off. Why now?

Well, because 3D data capture is taking off! (That's me being ironic - see yesterday's post.)

Obviously, the printing technology is improving as well, but many of the gains I'm seeing in 3D printing are related to two things: 1. The increased availability of relatively cheap software with which you can create 3D designs that are printable. 2. The increased availability of systems that allow you to capture reality relatively cheaply and accurately. 

The first is sort of obvious and means the world will never have a shortage 3D printed bracelets and iPhone covers. But the second is just sort of creeping up on us. 

Certainly the news that an entertainment giant like Disney is getting on board is a sign that capture-to-print is gaining steam. Not unlike a cool souvenir offered at the Super Bowl a couple years back, Disney launches today at Disney's Hollywood Studios a keepsake whereby you can have your face scanned and then swapped out with Harrison Ford-as-Han Solo so that it can be you frozen in carbonite and hung on the wall of Jabba the Hutt's den of sin. 

No, seriously, this could be you, for just $99:


It sounds like they're using a version of the Shape Shot technology 

At the Carbon-Freezing Chamber (located adjacent to The American Idol Experience), several cameras will capture multiple angles of your face. The images are then reconstructed in a computer for processing, and in approximately four weeks, the completed figurine is shipped directly to your house.

Man. Just imagine the 3D printers that would have to be cranking 24/7 to accommodate all those people going through Disney (reservations are required, so they're clearly making sure they've got capacity at roll out). Someone made themselves a nice sale!

And I know what you're thinking: "More toys! I'm trying to scan a bridge over here. What do I care about pretending to get captured by Boba Fett?"

Well, maybe you might find it interesting that one blogger, after checking out the AIA convention, is openly wondering: "In architecture, is 3D printing the new normal?"

To quote: "When it comes to computing, the buzz at this year's AIA convention is all about three-dimensional process: 3D CAD, building information modeling (BIM), and - more than ever before - 3D printing."

The author then goes on to outline all the drawbacks, cost highest among them. But why is 3D printing becoming more of a de facto need for architects? Because they're designing in 3D! You can't print out your 2D drawings, obviously. Really, the technology for 3D printing isn't that much different than it was 10 years ago (I've seen the cheesy morning news show footage to prove it, but my YouTube searching abilities are failing me at the moment), but it's much more commonplace for architects to be designing in Revit or other 3D software and to have the inclination (if not yet the ability, necessarily) to just hit print when the design is done.

Here's more on the feasibility of the workflow:

“Now that we have our design drawn in a software package that can handle 2D and 3D representation, wouldn’t it be great if we could hit ‘3D print” and have our design 3D printed to scale?” asks New York based architectural designer and 3D expert Piet Meijs with Rietveld Architects, which uses a 3D printer from Objet. ”That would be great, but unfortunately the technology isn’t there yet.”

I doubt too many architecture firms have a copy of 3DS Max sitting around at the moment, but it might become much more common. 

Regardless, if the competition is making a presentation with a cool 3D printout, you better believe each architecture house is going to start to feel the pressure to not show up with some stuff carve out of foam. And if they feel as though they need 3D printing, they're going to know they need to be designing in 3D. And if they're designing in 3D, you know they're going to want to start with as-built conditions when they're doing a renovation or addition of any sort. 

And that means they're going to need some laser scanning work done. 

See how that works?

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Autodesk acquisition recap

As I'm getting ready for the start of SPAR Europe tomorrow, Autodesk has gone ahead and announced yet another acquisition, this time of AI game middleware firm GRIP Entertainment. Not as interesting to 3D data capture professionals as the Alice Labs buy, maybe, but yet another example of the buying/investment spree that Autodesk has been on in the past year.

Someone's feeling flush. 

So, just thought it was worth a quick recap of what Autodesk has been up to (as I work on an Autodesk story for tomorrow morning, which is Photofly related).

• Feb. 2011 - Autodesk buys Scaleform - This middleware firm will help Autodesk with its 3D game creation. Scaleform GFx allows development teams to more quickly and easily author game UIs and interactive 3D experiences using Adobe Flash and Adobe Creative Suite software. Roughly $36 million.

• Feb. 2011 - Autodesk buys Blue Ridge Numerics - The simulation software company bring capabilities for predicting fluid and air flow, augmenting Inventor's, Algor's, and Moldflow's capabilities. The CFdesign software allows mechanical and building system engineers to virtually test and predict real-world behavior of new and existing designs and eliminate expensive physical prototyping cycles in the lab. Roughly $39 million.

• July 2011 - Autodesk buys Pixlr - A web-based Photoshop, basically, this handy little site allows for browser-based photo editing. This fits in with Autodesk's consumer-focused SketchBook line (and, really, if you haven't used Pixlr, I recommend it. For quick image-editing on the fly, it's actually easier than firing up Photoshop).

• Aug. 2011 - Autodesk buys Instructables - This is a web site where "makers" gather to show off their stuff and exchange ideas. The buy goes along with Autodesk's increasing consumer and DIY plays, bringing Autodesk more to the masses. No purchase price announced. 

• Aug. 2011 - Autodesk buys technology from Numenus - This ray-tracing technology allows for interactive rendering directly from NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Splines) data to provide instant, photorealistic design renderings. This should make for more accurate visualization of surfaces and let people spend less time preparing quality visualization data. No purchase price announced.

• Oct. 2011 - Autodesk buys Micro Application Packages - This will augment Autodesk's BIM portfolio. MAP makes CAD, CAM and estimating software that supports fabrication and construction for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) industry. No price announced. 

• Oct. 2011 - Autodesk buys Alice Labs - This firm got out of the gates with plug-ins for Maya and 3ds Max and brings powerful tools for working with point clouds and integrating photogrammetry. It ought to help in the gaming engine world along with bringing better point cloud capabilities to basically every software package Autodesk makes. Purchase price not announced. 

• Oct. 2011 - Autodesk invests in Gehry Technologies - This partnership furthers Autodesk's move into the BIM space and gets association with a pretty great brand. Further, it shows Autodesk wrapping its arms around the architecture community as architects start to wrap their arms around Revit. 


So, what to make of this as a body of work? There's definitely a marketing slant to the acquisitions, a reaching out to the mass marketplace as a way to build the brand as consumers turn into professionals later in life. Autodesk clearly is putting its money where its "everyone is a designer" mouth is. Further, there's a clear desire to push 3D out into the world at large - they believe they need to be evangelists not just for themselves but for the concept of using 3D in design at a very base level. As they build reality capture into that - and I think we'll see more development and buys in the reality capture space in the not-too-distant future - it can only be a good thing for those of you working on bringing the real world into your design applications.

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Where 3D printing is headed (and data capture along with it)

MIT has a great article up right now outlining its contributions to 3D printing, both past and continuing. It provides an interesting look into why 3D printing was developed, what leaps it has made recently, and what researchers are working on right now. All of it gets me thinking about how 3D data capture folks can take advantage.

Essentially, the 3D printer wad developed to assist with rapid-prototyping. New stuff created from scratch by CAD drawings. People wanted to see if the design was any good in the real world before making a bunch of them, and they wanted it faster. 3D printing obliged. But, as 3D printing has evolved to allow for different materials, including metal, it has become a tool for actual reverse engineering - moving beyond rapid prototyping to simple rapid manufacturing. 

And this is where it gets interesting:

Another variant underway now is a system being developed by Neri Oxman PhD ’10, the Media Lab’s Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and her graduate student Steven Keating for “printing” concrete. Their ultimate aim: printing a complete structure, even a whole building. 

Say there's an as-built structure you'd like to replicate a piece of? Just scan it and print it. How'd that be? With all of the infrastructure that's failing across the United States - bridges, highways, etc. - how convenient would it be to scan a piling, bring it into CAD, smooth out the warts, and then print the piece that replaces the failing piling?

More interesting, though, is the prospect of replacing pieces of structures that have failing parts with even more efficient parts that may actually be stronger:

Not only would it be possible to create fanciful, organic-looking shapes that would be difficult or impossible using molds, but the technique could also allow the properties of the concrete itself to vary continuously, producing structures that are both lighter and stronger than conventional concrete. 

Here's a photo of the proof-of-concept:

I'd say that's pretty cool. 

3D printing has long been dismissed as only for small items and rapid prototyping and new things. But I think it won't be long before we're using the same concepts, maybe in much larger and adapted form, in the construction and engineering fields, paired with real-world 3D data capture.

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The holy grail: Automated feature extraction

Revisiting a topic that was hot at SPAR in Houston, I've got a video interview with Tim Lowery, VP of business development at ClearEdge3D, which, along with companies like kubit and Aveva, was talking quite a bit at the show about automated feature extraction, essentially limiting the amount of work modelers have to do when they're trying to take a point cloud and make it useful in a CAD environment. 

(In fact, here's the interview I did with kubit on the subject.)

One of the concerns with any programs like these is the introduction of error: Does it take longer to fix what the software mistakenly modeled, or does it take longer to model without any software automation. Clearly, ClearEdge believes it's the latter, saying that its software in a plant environment, where you're modeling piping, can reduce modeling time anywhere from 35-75 percent (a big range, obviously, but it depends on the quality and resolution of the scan, on the complexity of the piping, on the skills of the modeler, etc.). 

The holy grail here, obviously, is that software solution of the future where you push a button and your point cloud magically turns into a perfect model of what you've scanned (it's the holy grail because it will likely never actually become reality). There is also the argument that this need for feature extraction will disappear as point clouds become more high-resolution and people become more comfortable working directly in the point cloud. It may be that point clouds become working environments where you can introduce new objects and do clash-detection, etc., without ever having to switch to a CAD program of some sort. Time will tell.

Thus far, everyone's been focusing on piping because it's one of the easiest applications. Software is apparently good at finding smooth, round things. However, you'll hear in the video about plans ClearEdge has for the next verticals they'll tackle, as soon as Q1/Q2 of 2012.

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What do people actually want to see?

One of the coolest things about SPAR International, I found, was that it draws such a widely diverse group of people, who all happen to have the same basic interests: risk avoidance, efficiency creation, problem-solving with new tools, and a general curiosity about what's going to be the next technology that changes the way they do their jobs.

Of course, each attendee has a different level of understanding of what's available in 3D imaging technology; each attendee has a different notion about what could help them accomplish their goals. So each attendee approaches the exhibition hall a little differently, with points of interest and plans of attack that vary widely. 

If I could say there was a somewhat universal interest, it would be in the new ways that software is coming into the market and automating processes that are extremely manual at the moment. There seemed to be a belief that somewhere, some way, there was a piece of software that could solve a heck of a lot of problems: incompatibility, work-intensive modeling, excruciatingly long process times. Did our attendees find what they were looking for? Well, there were definitely a number of companies talking automation. That holy grail of pushing a button and turning a point cloud into a working model? We're not there yet. Obviously.

And there's some question as to whether that's what everyone really wants anymore. As the point clouds get more dense and more accurate, there's more and more an inclination to just leave that point cloud the way it is. Any attempt at modeling sort of by definition makes it less accurate.

But don't take my word for what people were interested in at the conference. Here's a video with a few interviews of diverse attendees talking about just exactly what they were looking for on the exhibition floor.

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How 3D is the CAD market? Not very?

I ran across today a well-reasoned argument from Cadalyst's Robert Green that the actual use of 3D CAD software is far below the amount of hype and talk it gets in the press and amongst marketers. Citing statistics from a survey he's conducted both in 2008 and just recently, he shows that 3D CAD use is growing, but is still only the main workflow at about 18 percent of companies. 

Here's how things break down:


Thus, the conclusion:


Like the 2008 survey before it, the 2010 CAD Manager's Survey offers evidence that 3D usage is, in fact, increasing, but is still nowhere near as pervasive as software companies would have us believe.  

I continue to believe that firms will use 2D when they can do so profitably, and will only invest in 3D when business purposes justify it. The trick for CAD managers is to help their companies make the transition to 3D — if and when it makes sense. 


 To which I say, "well, obviously!" 

First, marketers and media are always going to be pushing the next great technology. I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. When you're reporting the "news," you tend to focus on the new and different and interesting. New Technology Breakthrough! is a much better headline than Same Old Stuff Still Happening! That's just the nature of the beast. Most consumers of media have figured that out by now, but I'll admit that's getting worse as information is more rapidly consumed and disseminated. There's more pressure than ever on journalists to discover cool stuff first, and thus there's more pressure to validate new things as interesting and important, even if they're really only interesting with possibilities. 

As for marketers at software companies - well, their old stuff works fine. You're only going to buy their new stuff if it offers some new and cool features that are going to get you excited. So that's what they tend to focus on. And what marketing technique is older and more effective than "everyone else is doing it"? If a marketer can convince you that your competitor has invested in this cool new 3D software, isn't that likely to get you off your butt? Of course. 

Are you shocked that a marketer might stretch the truth in making that argument? I'm not. 

However, the larger point that Green makes here is a valid one not just for those CAD firms but for anyone working in this growing 3D space: Don't buy into the hype. Only invest in 3D tools if they make sense for your business and you can see a way for them to create more profitability for you. But I think you knew that. 

What you might not know is how other people are finding profit with 3D tools. That's where educating yourself and understanding the new technology is of vital importance. Just because you can't see, right now, how these tools can fit into your workflow doesn't mean someone else hasn't invented that better mousetrap. 

No, don't buy into the hype, but don't be a naysayer either. Skepticism is healthy. Cynicism will leave you on the outside looking in when the new technology finally takes hold. 


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3D software firm Geomagic becoming an Obama darling

For a little software firm in North Carolina, Geomagic is getting a lot of attention from the White House lately. And that can't be a bad thing for the 3D imaging industry. While I'm fairly certain the vast majority of Americans who hear the company referenced by the president have absolutely no idea what they actually do (heck, the vast majority of Americans have a tough time telling you what the President does), it's still true that 3D is almost always mentioned when Geomagic is, and that's good for everyone working in the medium. 

First, Geomagic CEO Ping Fu was asked to come and participate in a forum at the White House on Jan. 14, with 49 other CEOs, to talk about using technology to modernize government. Even in that first write-up, Geomagic gets a good and accurate description:

The Research Triangle Park company she co-founded in 1996 makes 3D software that allows customers such as NASA and Harley Davidson to build realistic digital models of products. Geomagic continues to prosper during the downturn and is planning on adding to its 100-employee workforce again this year. 

Fu, too, comes off as a wise and eye-open contributor:

And Fu, a Chinese native, has a pretty good idea of why she got picked to attend the forum. "Obama wants diversity, so I wasn't a surprise choice," Fu said. "I'm one of the few female CEOs in high tech." 

Apparently, Obama was impressed, or Fu was politically convenient in her diversity, or both. Because the White House invitations didn't stop there. 

Fu ended up sitting with the First Lady during the State of the Union Address (a lot of people sit "next" to the First Lady during that address - "next" is something of a relative term in politics. Like "is"), and then helped kick off Obama's small business initiative on Jan. 31:

She got a call from White House officials Saturday night, asking her to be in Washington by Monday morning. She didn't hesitate. 

"It's important for entrepreneurs to have a voice in the capital," Fu said. "This is a starting point, but this administration really seems to get it." 

And as a member of the administration's National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Fu said she "will play a role in shaping the policies and making sure the execution bears fruit." 

It simply cannot be a bad thing for a relatively niche industry like 3D imaging to have such a strong advocate so well placed in Washington. Good for Fu and good for Geomagic for seizing the opportunity and investing time and energy in the process.

Yesterday Geomagic even got a nice shout out during President Obama's address to the Chambers of Commerce. 

Which, of course, was captured and loaded to YouTube (which is convenient):

Pretty cool, right? Caterpillar. Dow. Geomagic. Same thing.


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