3-D modeling used to require lasers and special image-capture studios. But with Autodesk’s free Photofly desktop app, anyone with a camera can turn real-world stuff into 3-D digital images. The resulting files can be output to a 3-D printer to fabricate replicas of existing objects or even busts of you and your friends.
Photogrammetry is a method of 3-D modeling that stitches together 2-D photos to create digital models of almost anything — rooms, toys, even people. It requires some serious processing power, though, and the results have tended to be rough. Photofly shifts the number-crunching burden to the cloud. Even better, it’s quite user friendly. You upload your images, and about 10 minutes later you get a .3dp file preview. The results can be stunning, but you’ve got to work for them.
The detailed tutorial video suggests that you circle your subject, snapping overlapping photos every 5 to 10 degrees. You end up with roughly 40 to 60 photos, which translates into a lot of meticulous shutter time. The experimental software looks for distinctive features — an earring, a button, a light switch — that it can use to align the images and weave them together into a finished model.
Of course, it’s not that simple. The software struggles with shadows, reflections, uneven lighting, and monochromatic surfaces. With the help of a patient assistant, I set about making a model of my own head. But our first few tries looked mostly like the melting-face guys in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Other attempts left huge holes in my face where the software had simply skipped over photos it didn’t like.
Using the .3dp preview as a guide, you can add in new photos where the software left gaps and trim out background scenery, which can trip up the stitching process. It’s tedious but straightforward. Once that’s done, you can export the final file and order a 3-D printed version from a service like Shapeways or churn one out on your own MakerBot.
Photofly is nowhere near precise enough for, say, replacing a discontinued gas cap for your car (I tried), but if you want to swap out the heads on action figures with miniature doppelgè4ngers of yourself and your friends (you know you do), now you’ve got the power.
WIRED Fantastic documentation, including a quickstart guide and video tutorial. Lack of pro features keeps the bar to entry low. It’s free.
TIRED Requires Mendelian patience. Struggles with monochrome, reflective, and translucent objects. While getting started is easy, getting good takes a lot of practice.