July 29, 2014

Head in the Point Clouds

Sam Pfeifle

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

Moving 3D data capture toward manufacturing

Autodesk just posted a very interesting interview between Wired editor Chris Anderson and Autodesk CEO Carl Bass. In it, Bass announces the beta version of 123d, a program that's going to be freely distributed and be intended to allow a new class of DIY "makers" to quickly create designs for 3D objects that can be then printed from the cloud.

Make sure you stay until the 4:00 mark, where Bass begins to talk about the possibilities of photogrammetry. He agrees with Alice Labs and Online Interactive and a number of other firms that are working toward making the point clouds created by photographs and video particularly useful. Bass envisions a day, coming soon, where a few photos from an iPhone can be uploaded to the cloud, made into a 3D model, and then printed out as your very own keepsake. Take a look:


How does this change manufacturing? How does this change reverse-engineering? How long until 123d accepts point clouds natively and scanners are inexpensive enough that many people have them? 

Also, I'm sort of baffled that he and Anderson don't mention Shapeways, which does exactly what Bass says will soon be done, as in having a place where you can upload your design and just print out one or many in a variety of materials. 

Does your kid like trucks? Scan the bulldozer across the street and print one out for your kid. Wish you had that exact item, only a little smaller? Scan it, modify it, and print it. 

I think this trend is huge for data capture industry in many ways. DIY manufacturing is right on the horizon. How can you take advantage of it?

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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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The increasing importance of exactly where

Here in Maine, we sort of start out behind the 8 ball. Most people below the Mason-Dixon line think we're part of Canada, I'm pretty sure. It's cold here, just about nine and a half months out of the year. If people know us at all, it's for moose and lobster and black flies. 

Yet, somehow, we rely on tourism as a major part of our economy. 

See, Maine is one of those places that can be so blindingly beautiful you can barely believe it's real. Our rocky coast, full of islands and inlets, is still largely untouched and pristine. Our mountains may not be Rockies, but they're pretty big and fun to ski. We have a large part of the state that is literally referred to as "the unorganized territory," because there's nothing there, which is just what you're looking for if you're the type who likes to hike and forget for a little while that there's such a thing as civilization. 

Which is why we're quite particular about how the outside world does, indeed, see Maine when they try to take a peek. It's important we show off our better qualities. 

Maybe that helps you understand why one of our Congressional Representatives is writing to Larry Page, Google's CEO, to tell him that his maps have misplaced one of our towns:

I was shocked to learn that when Google Map users search for the lovely Maine town of York, the results often show a location 26 miles to the north. And worse yet, it is a problem that was first reported two years ago, and has cropped back up now, just as tourists are beginning to plan their summer visits to Maine. 

I know, I know. "Doesn't your congresswoman have something better to do than whine about one of your towns being in the wrong place?" Fair enough. I'm sure she's also doing some other important things. But the fact that this has bubbled up emphasizes a trend I believe is of vital importance to the future of the 3D imaging marketplace:

It's becoming increasingly important that people know EXACTLY where something is. Further, it's becoming increasingly important that property owners are assured that customers looking for them know EXACTLY where to find them.

Of course, all you surveyors out there are slapping your foreheads and saying, "well, duh! Accuracy is kind of important!," but bear with me. Twenty years ago, if I was planning a trip to Maine, I'd pull out a road map, maybe supplied by AAA, and I'd see a big swath of the state of Maine, with the word "York" next to a dot, and I'd see it's pretty dang close to the ocean. "Ah, well," I'd say to myself, "there's got to be a place on the water there somewhere." Then I'd have someone like a travel agent or AAA suggest a hotel and I'd book it and go. I'd play in the waves. Maybe get one of those round rafts to float on. Even better if it had a cup holder for my beer.

Nowadays what would I do? I'd use google maps to check the place out. And this is what I'd get:


"Well, that sure looks like a hole in the ground," I'd say to myself. "Next!" (This is assuming I'm kind of dim and don't realize I can zoom out and look around and such. It's an esoteric argument I'm making here.)

Maybe I'd even try another service, like Bing:


Huh, looks kind of inland, but maybe I'll give it a go. I've heard good things.

Or Ovi:


Yikes. Is a plane going to swoop out of the sky and chase me down like Cary Grant?

Or if I was really savvy, ESRI's ArcGIS:


Hmm, that looks like a nice quaint little town. I bet gran would love it!

Man, that Ovi map is really not doing the lovely town of York any favors, am I right? Looks just like a bustling metropolis doesn't it? How does that happen? How does a tourist town go about addressing that grievance?

Of course, the ESRI map does the town the most justice, but, then, that's been created by someone who cares about the town, who's taken the time to put together a base map that's at 1:1000 scale, that has pretty colors and makes clear that this is a town on the water. 

But do you think the average searcher is going to dial up ArcGIS right off the bat? Hardly. 

Most importantly, just where York shows up in these searches if of vital importance all of a sudden to the town's businesses. This isn't a joke to them. The argument that Congresswoman Pingree makes is a very real one:

This problem has a real economic impact for businesses in the area. I understand that online booking for some inns in York have fallen significantly because of this situation, at a time when businesses are just gearing up for the tourist season. 

Trust me, one bad summer can put folks out of business around here. Heck, one bad weekend, if it's Memorial Day or Labor Day. With margins that thin, even if one in 100 potential visitors go somewhere else because of a bad Google result, that's a major problem.

Because of this reality, cities and towns are going to begin to see ever more value in positioning themselves exactly for services like these, maybe even creating their own search-optimized 3D geo-referenced maps so that they can bypass maps like Google's that they don't like. They're going to hire firms to 3D scan their cities and towns. They're going to model their cities and towns in 3D. They're going to put their best digital feet forward for fear that they'll be out of business if they don't. 

That's a major opportunity and a very real revenue driver for the 3D imaging industry.

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Ovi Maps - What to make of it?

The web is buzzing about Nokia's Ovi Maps - and rightly so. The new 3D interface they've debuted, allowing you to take amazing 3D fly throughs of some of the world's most beautiful cities, is a revelation. If you haven't played with it yet, do so now by clicking here and wasting a significant part of your day

I recommend starting with New York, as the skyscrapers best optimize the 3D effect. (You're going to need to download a little Ovi plug-in, but it only takes a couple of seconds. Just do it. Trust me. Also, make sure you notice the "Pick a City" button in the lower left hand corner. It's not immediately apparent.)

For those less adventurous of you, this is what you can see of New York:


It's much, much cooler when you can spin it around and dive into it and run into skyscrapers by mistake, believe me. There are currently 20 cities you can check out, which are obviously the ones where they've done the flyover and integrated the image information with the lidar data. 

Many of the write-ups you'll see of this - like this one from Fast Company, or this one from MIT's Technology Review - focus on the fact that c3Technologies supplies much of the back-end technology to make the interface happen, which must mean that they put out a better press release or something. Also, people seem to love the whole angle where c3 developed the technology for the aerospace industry and it was supposed to guide missiles, blah, blah. I think it's overstating things to go with the whole swords-to-plowshares meme here. If we started counting up how many consumer applications started out as military applications we'd have a pretty long list. 

The real question is how Nokia is actually going to make any money off this 3D interface. At the moment it's a shiny toy and a great time waster, but it's unclear where the revenue is going to come from. 

Here's Nokia's Michael Halbherr from Ovi Product Development talking about Ovi's direction right before his keynote at the Where 2.0 conference (which I'm really feeling like I should have been at):

Much of what he's talking about is the 2D - the rich mapping APIs they'll be offering, the routing stuff, the advanced search functions, etc. All of which basically follow the Google model. Are they really going to do it so much better that they'll be able to overcome Google's branding and interface with its ubiquitous search engine, etc.? Show me all the market studies you want, but I'll tell you right now that Bing brought exactly 1.2 percent of the search traffic last month to SPARpointGroup.com. Yahoo beat Bing handily. 

Also, note that Halbherr more than once refers to the 3D interface as "eye candy" and "really cool." I totally agree. But that's not exactly code for "huge revenue driver." 

Maybe the most interesting thing he says involves his reference to how Navteq's "industrial capture process" is being dove-tailed with user additions. How is that going to work? How do they mesh survey-grade laser scan data with the photos from my iPhone? It makes the head spin. 

But I do have to admit the interface is addictive. I can't stop showing it to people here in the office and I've been surfing the streets of New York City like Spiderman for the last half hour. Seems like there's a model here for advertising a la Hulu and other streaming video sites, where an add might occupy a corner of the screen for 30 seconds at a time. But there's so much competition for advertising dollars...

There's also the fact that as you get more specific in your detail you need to refresh the maps all that more often for the user experience to be genuine. Look at the billboards in New York's Times Square: How long will Mary Poppins be playing for? Dawn of the Dead 2? 

Although, I have to admit that one of the coolest things about the 3Dness of this is how the sun plays into the images. Check out the difference here between one side of Helsinki's Suomenlinna area


and the other.


It almost makes it feel live, and it definitely makes it feel like more than just a computer simulation. 

Back to potential applications, though. Since Halbherr is talking about full APIs for just about any platform, mobile or desktop, it would seem that you could back this interface into just about anything. 

Off the top of my head revenue-generating applications (with the assumption that maybe the top 500 cities will eventually be mapped), other than sell ads for people to see when wasting time:

• Sell it to the online travel sites so that when they show you a hotel they also can show you the walking route to the major tourist attractions. Sure, you can show me an overhead map, or the Google map where I have to click the little arrow, but this is way cooler and you could do pre-programmed animations where I don't actually have to do anything. Then the hotels pay to have this service linked to their hotel. You don't pay, you don't get the cool animation. Chance of that actually being sellable? 30 percent?

• Sell it to colleges and universities so they can set up virtual tours of their campus and the surrounding area to entice potential students. As in: "Click here to walk the campus." Could be either pre-programmed or just embedded and the kids fly through. Chance of that actually being sellable? 20 percent?

• An education app that can be downloaded to tablets to teach kids world geography? $4.99 a download? Chances of that actually being sellable? Well, some well-meaning parents would buy. 

Anyway, you get the idea. Wild, wild west kind of stuff here. Maybe most importantly, though, another application that gets the mainstream thinking in terms of real-world 3D data and application. That can only be good for those of you armed with data capture devices and a business plan.

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Mainstreaming laser scanning

When FARO CEO Jay Freeland addressed investors and analysts during a 3Q 2010 earnings call, he called the company's new Focus3D phased-based laser scanner "one of the most disruptive technologies I've been involved with." Further, he claimed that laser scanning "hadn't really crossed the chasm from early adopters to the early-majority - now it has." So I got with FARO's Ed Oliveras at SPAR International to see who the plan was coming to fruition. 

Interestingly, Oliveras said that it isn't just the new device's price point and portability that have helped propel it further into the market, but also software interoperability developments that have made point cloud data as a whole more useful. 

For the full interview, see here:

Is this wishful thinking? Has laser scanning really begun to edge into mainstream thinking? Or is it still a niche technology that most people have never heard of? If the latter, how does the industry better promote the technology and its capabilities?

Laser scanners could be free, but if no one knew what to do with them, they'd still sit on shelves.

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Google to compete in high-end GIS software space

Have you heard about Google Earth Builder? Announced at the Where 2.0 conference, it's Google's next step up from Google Earth and Google Maps, taking on GIS software firms like ESRI with a completely cloud-based enterprise-level GIS information management application. You can get the nickel tour right here (well, sales pitch anyway):

I think it's probably the sharing capabilities that people will be drawn to. Without anything residing on a server in an organization's building, people will be more likely to access the information in more places and get more people involved with working with the GIS data. 

As it relates to 3D, it's not that different from the problem of getting more people interested in using point cloud data. Anything that makes it more likely people will see value in 3D data is a good thing for the industry as a whole. It's unclear as yet to me how sophisticated Earth Builder will be in working with 3D GIS data, but one would think that Google wouldn't jump into the market with an utterly inferior product. That doesn't tend to be Google's style (well, other than Google Wave, which completely sucked, I guess). 

Here's the San Fran Chronicle's take on the release. Looks like Earth Builder won't be available until Q3, so there's still much to wait and see about. 

Still, companies are already coming out of the woodwork to announced they'll be using the software. Ergon Energy says it will be using lidar to capture its powerline infrastructure and then loading that into Earth Builder:

"Ergon Energy is the electricity distributor for 97 per cent of Queensland and its network traverses many sparsely populated areas. It's both challenging and expensive to build, maintain and operate a large geographically dispersed network. The ROAMES project along with Google Earth Builder will enable Ergon staff to improve decision-making and realise operational efficiencies, by delivering to them rich, timely, spatial and precise information about its network in the context of the real-world in which it exists," he said. 

According to that press release, Ergon expects to save $44 million over five years thanks to the combination of technologies. 

And the Google blog says the company already has a contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency:

Google’s work with NGA marks one of the first major government geospatial cloud initiatives, which will enable NGA to use Google Earth Builder to host its geospatial data and information. This allows NGA to customize Google Earth & Maps to provide maps and globes to support U.S. government activities, including: U.S. national security; homeland security; environmental impact and monitoring; and humanitarian assistance, disaster response and preparedness efforts. This is particularly critical to provide damage and mobility assessments after natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan or Hurricane Katrina. 

Nothing I'm seeing has yet mentioned indoors, where ESRI has lately been pushing, attempting to take advantage of the vast opportunity presented by all of that basically unmapped space, but we'll have to wait for the official release, probably before we get a full understanding of what markets Google is attacking and what capabilities Google Earth Builder will actually have. 

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Moving GIS indoors

One of the hottest topics at SPAR International last month involved indoor mapping. Sure, some of that was generated by Applanix' new TIMMS indoor mapping solution, but it was also driven by the very well attended scan-to-BIM track and any number of discussions about bringing the principles of outdoor mapping to the indoor space.

One of the leaders of this movement is ESRI, which obviously has an interest in making GIS software more interesting to more people by tackling the vast amount of indoor space that has yet to be mapped, or at least not mapped and placed in the same places that outdoors spaces are generally mapped and shown. 

Why bother? One of the more obvious applications involves space utilization. If you're a firm with 500,000 square feet of office space, how do you keep track of how that space is being utilized? What's free and what's occupied? Is the occupied space being used efficiently? I want to hire 100 people - do we have any place to put them? Using GIS software like ESRI's ARC Scene, you can quickly show people what space is open, where it is, and how the occupied space might be readjusted to allow for more unoccupied space. 

Here's a video interview with ESRI where solutions engineer Craig Cleveland explains ESRI's interest, and the company's solutions, in moving GIS indoors. He discusses much of what's available now, and where he sees the company heading as it develops more solutions to today's problems. As Craig notes, "GIS has been traditionally viewed as stopping at the building." What if we don't see it that way going forward?

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Examining the new Leica HDS 7000

One of the most buzz-worthy elements of SPAR International was the first look at Leica Geosystems' new HDS 7000, the next in its line of phase-based scanners (which are, of course, Z+F's line of phase-based scanners, with red paint instead of blue - the HDS 7000 is an OEM of the Z+F Imager 5010, which was designed by Z+F's Markus Mettenleiter, who was also at SPAR). For the specs and press release from Leica, you can go here, but at SPAR we got an exclusive video interview with Geoff Jacobs, Sr. VP of Strategic Marketing at Leica Geosystems HDS. In the following video, he gives us a tour of what the new advances are with both the HDS 7000 hardware and the Cyclone software that allows users to manipulate the data gathered.



But what do the users think of the new technology? Since Leica was using its technical seminar time to unveil the new HDS 7000 and the accompanying software, we caught up with two users as they left the seminar to ask them: What do you think of the new scanner? The surveyors from New Brunswick's Hughes Surveys talk technology wants and desires, plus a little bit about price (on some level, it's always about price, right?):



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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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The impact of Revit 2012 accepting point clouds

It may go slightly without saying for those who work with building information modeling on a daily basis, but the announcement that Autodesk's Revit product will be able to natively work with point cloud data in the 2012 release is something of a big deal. 

To figure out just how much of a big deal this is, I spoke with Kelly Cone, who as the technology guru at the Beck Group, a commercial architecture, construction, and development firm, got a chance to beta test the software. His firm's Beck Technology offshoot has been heavily involved with scan-to-BIM, working particularly with the GSA, and Cone has plenty of thoughts on how this will impact the market.

Take a look:

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