MatterPort handheld scanner allows you to scan a room and quickly render 3D maps.

A Silicon Valley startup wants to give you the power to "scan your world" with a handheld scanner that rapidly creates 3D maps of objects and rooms, complete with colors and textures. While it may seem like you'd have to have a steady hand and move slowly through a room to scan it, a demo video of the device from MatterPort implies that the 3D maps can be generated by simply passing it through the space, sort of like virtually painting a room. Just imagine you're using a squeegee and you get the idea. In one of its promotional videos, the startup even claims, "MatterPort does for 3D modeling what photography did for painting." According to co-founder Mike Beebe, the device is 20 times faster than other 3D scanners on the market.

And if you think it looks like a hacked Kinect sensor attached to a handle, you're not too far off — Kinect was used in the prototype. Technical details of the latest version of the scanner have not been released, but it may very well be that the team has designed their own Kinect-like device, which means they need two 3D depth sensors and a RGB camera.

Imagine instead of simply taking pictures or video of a cool place or a vacation, you could recreate it virtually to tour it whenever you wanted to, kind of like your own personal Google Street View for your memories. Just watch the demo video to get a sense of how easy it could be to do 3D scanning:

The company presented the device at the 2012 Y Combinator Demo Day, just one of the 39 startups showing off their wares. But MatterPort isn't the first company to produce a portable 3D scanner. Z Corp offers a line of handheld laser scanners as part of their catalog, which includes 3D printers, yet these run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Although not a handheld device, NextEngine has offered a high precision 3D scanner for around $3,000 for a few years now. MatterPort's product is still in development, but Beebe claims that the scanner is "18 times cheaper" than competing devices. Now if that's being compared to the Z Corp scanner, you're still looking at a $1,500 price point. But a beckoning "What would you scan?" button on MatterPort's website appears to be marketing to a much broader audience, a consumer base that can afford an Xbox and a Kinect sensor, for instance, which is around $500.

When aimed at a scene (top), the handheld scanner appears to construct a Kinect-like skeleton model (bottom left) and fill segments with color information from the RGB camera (bottom right).

While the device may not produce scans with the laser-like precision of Z Corp, their "quick and dirty" approach is likely to be sufficient for a host of purposes for now. After all, the Kinect technology has been good enough for Xbox gaming, and the Kinect technology is advancing, with news that the Kinect 2 will be able to accurately read lips. So while MatterPort figures out the technology side, they're marketing approach aims to bring the desire to use 3D scanning beyond professionals and hobbyists.

MatterPort's 3D scanner created models of their office space in just 45 minutes.

Interest in 3D scanning is on the rise in large part because of the growing popularity of 3D printing. With printers like MakerBot, Origo, and RepRap becoming accessible to many, simple scanning solutions are in demand. Beyond printing, 3D maps of interiors has a wide range of uses, from architects designing an ideal working space to realtors creating walkthroughs of a home. Game developers who make realistic first-person shooters like Call of Duty could use this kind of technology to easily scan buildings to generate maps, instead of designing them from the ground up from pictures.

Because of the potential, co-founder Matt Bell speculated that 3D scanners will someday be in tablets for anyone to do 3D scanning. For all the ways that this technology could be used in the future, one thing is clear: the line between physical and virtual reality will blur even more. Whether its MatterPort's 3D scanning or capturing the world in 360° panoramic video, the digitization of the physical world is accelerating.

[Media: FastCo, YouTube]

[Sources: CNET, FastCo, Gizmag, Matterport, VentureBeat, Visual News]

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.