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Ever wished you could take an object in a museum home with you instead of settling for some photos?

The design software company Autodesk will release free software next week that could turn those snapshots into your own personal replica from a 3-D printer. Called Photofly, the software extracts a detailed 3-D model from a collection of overlapping photos.

“We can automatically generate a 3-D mesh at extreme detail from a set of photos—we’re talking the kind of density captured by a laser scanner,” says Brian Mathews, who leads a group at the company known as Autodesk Labs. Unlike a laser scanner, though, the equipment needed to capture the 3-D rendering doesn’t cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. An overlapping set of around 40 photos is enough to capture a person’s head and shoulders in detailed 3-D, he says.

The software, which will be available for Windows computers only, uploads a user’s photos to a cloud server for processing and then downloads the results. The 3-D rendering can be viewed as a naked wire-frame model of the captured scene or a version with realistic surface color and texture. The colored models can also be shared for viewing in an iPad app, while the underlying wire frame can be exported in standard 3-D design formats for editing.

Models produced from a well-taken set of photos will be spatially accurate to within 1 percent or less, says Mathews, high enough quality to be used for professional design projects. “You could send that model from your photos to a 3-D printing service to physically re-create what you saw, perhaps at a different scale,” says Mathews. In recent years, the cost of 3-D printers and printing services has fallen, with hobbyist machines like the MakerBot and consumer services such as ShapeWays that will print out 3-D models in a variety of ceramics, plastics, and metals.

Autodesk’s is the first consumer software capable of producing models accurate enough for 3-D printing, says Mathews. Similar projects, such as Microsoft Research’s PhotoSynth, and an app based on the same technology that enables a cell phone to convert its photos into 3-D models, only capture 3-D data good enough to add an extra dimension to the content of photos, says Mathews. The same was true of a previous version of Photofly. “Generating accurate geometry from what we see in the photos is far more exciting.”

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Credit: Tom Simonite
Video by Tom Simonite, edited by Brittany Sauser

Tagged: Computing, photography, Design, 3-D printing, 3-D models

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