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Time Compression July 2009
1,000 Words Cubed?
Like many industrial scanning providers looking to diversify by adding health care applications, Direct Dimensions sees a big future in “shapeshots.”
by Scott Anderson, Associate Editor

I didn’t really need a 3D image of my face. After all, I could just take a good look in the mirror if I wanted to see where missed a spot shaving, and I wasn’t planning on having any identity enhancing surgery.

But the technicians from Direct Dimensions were convincing, and all I had to do was sit down and hold still for five seconds while four digital cameras snapped their flashes at once. Roughly a minute later, there was my face on a screen in 3D, and I used the mouse to spin my face from side to side and up and down, in high resolution. You can’t do that in a mirror.

But that’s not what this is really all about. At least not initially. Direct Dimensions (www.dirdim.com) typically provides both long-range and short-range scanning services for the automotive, shipbuilding and aerospace industries, using a variety of laser scanning, reverse engineering, and digital modeling equipment. The company didn’t create the 3D scanning technology, but recently signed on as the exclusive distributor in the U.S. for the software, which was developed by Dimensional Imaging (www.di3-D.com) in Scotland. So while Direct Dimensions has historically focused on industrial and manufacturing applications, it, like many in the scanning space, sees promise in the expanding field of medical imaging.

“The challenge up to now has been having enough computing power and cameras with enough pixels to make it work,” president and chief engineer Michael Raphael told me. “That is no longer a problem.

The 3D surface image capture method is called “Passive Stereo Photogrammetry.” It processes two, four, six or eight images shot simultaneously—no pattern projections required--to create what’s called a “range map.” In the range map, each of the pixels represents a point in space; the collected points are correlated to create a 3D image. The range map can be converted to a polygon mesh. The multiple images are blended together, akin to how a stereo system blends the sounds of different channels.

The software has been used by plastic surgeons to plan before an operation (one of the technicians scanned his face and printed out a near-scale bust of his face on a Z Corp. machine). But it also seems highly adaptable for designers or engineers developing a product that goes anywhere on or around person’s head or face (think safer motorcycle helmets or more ergonomic Bluetooth phone earpieces). Other applications, such as maxillofacial surgery and prosthetics are in the pipeline.

Although hardware costs have dropped from as much as $55,000 to about $2,000 (that’s going from special cameras to more consumer-like gear), the software costs around $40,000. Direct Dimensions is looking into high-use applications that large customers could amortize over time, such as a kiosk in a shopping mall where users could don dozens of pairs of sunglasses in 3-D. Raphael hopes to replace the term “snapshot” with “shapeshot” in the imaging lexicon. He imagines a world where a consumers will use their PC to take a 3D “ShapeShot,” and upload it to a retail website where they could “try on” different styles of glasses before ordering custom-fit frames.

The route to mass customization could begin with a teenaged shopper saying: “cheeeeese.”

View the article at Time Compression.com.