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3-D Scanning Made Tangible for the Masses

October 30, 2013 | By Microsoft blog editor

Posted by Rob Knies

Using a mobile phone to scan a person's head 

In recent months, 3-D printing has leapt into the popular vernacular. Not that long ago, 3-D printers and the items they produce seemed little more than an unusual plaything for organizational use. Such printers were expensive, difficult to understand, and, for most people, simply inaccessible.

No longer, though. Such printers have plummeted in price and mushroomed in popularity. The result is that what seemed a distant dream has suddenly become a tantalizing reality. The question for many quickly is morphing from “What could they do?” to “What can I do?”

On Oct. 30, during Innovation Day 2013 at Microsoft Research Asia, answers to the latter inquiry began to take shape, thanks to a demo called 3-D Scanning with Mobile Devices.

“Nowadays, 3-D printing is very popular,” says Jiawei Gu, with Richard Cai and Zhiwei Li one of three Microsoft Research scientists demonstrating the capabilities of the project. “When people want to fabricate something, determining what kind of thing is a key problem. Our technology can enable people to use the mobile phone in their pocket to scan anything and make it real.”

That represents nothing less than a once exclusive technology teetering on the verge of mass availability.

“Currently,” Cai explains, “only professional photographers with professional equipment can build 3-D content. The common user cannot. But with the popularity of the 3-D printer and 3-D games, the need for 3-D content is now emergent. If we can find an easy way for common users to create 3-D content by themselves, we can imagine that, in the next five years, everybody will be able to create 3-D content.

“The whole world may change.”

The researchers certainly have done their part to make it easy enough, deploying a solution that uses a client-plus-cloud strategy. It all starts with the user performing a quick scan by using a mobile phone to scan around an object of interest.

“With a phone or tablet, as long as you have an RGB camera, you can create a 3-D image,” Cai says. “The computational cost is heavy, so we do the reconstruction in the cloud, and then, after the computation is done, we transfer the data back to the user’s device, in around half a minute—just a simple scan, and you’ve got 3-D content.”

And, if you like, you could be headed toward the nearest 3-D printer.

“Now, for 3-D printing, people just download something from the web and print it,” Cai says. “But with this, you can print your models, not just existing models from the web.”

That personalization is where things start to get interesting.

“If you have scanned somebody’s face,” Gu says, “you can print out a cup with the face, for yourself or as a gift for a friend. If you go to a furniture store and see something nice, you can use a mobile phone to scan the furniture and put it into your home environment to see if it would fit.

“This augmented reality existing in our system can make things seem real.”