In three years 3D scanners have gone from $30,000 to $3,000 to—$0.00?! AutoDesk’s free 123D Catch app is now available for the iPhone and iPad. Users can take up to 40 pictures, upload them to the cloud, and receive a digital 3D model. Simply, 123D Catch is a free handheld 3D scanner as mobile as you are. Coupled with 3D modeling software and 3D printing services, Autodesk aims to bring 3D fabrication to the masses.
If you’re an architect or manufacturer or computer animator, chances are you already know Autodesk. Their 3D modeling software AutoCad—first released way back in 1982—is near ubiquitous in the professional world. But not so much at home.
Autodesk hopes to change all that with its user-friendly, free suite of 3D modeling software. The 123D Catch app was first released on the iPad in May 2012 and more recently adapted for the iPhone in early September. Added to 123D, 123D Catch (web), 123D Sculpt (iPad), and 123D Make, Autodesk has made 3D scanning, modeling, and printing as easy as 1-2-3. (Clever, huh?)
How does it work? Grab something you want to digitize—a statue or household item. Now, take 20 to 40 photos of the object from as many different angles as you can. Review your photos and replace any errant shots. When satisfied, upload the images to Autodesk’s cloud service.
Autodesk’s proprietary software will find common points between photos, extrapolate the angle each photo was taken from, and stitch them into a 3D model.
Pretty darn simple.
You can leave it at that or go further. 123D Catch models made from the iPad or iPhone are compatible with Autodesk’s 123D Catch web app. Users can perfect their models and then 3D print them either at home or through a third party, like Sculpteo or Shapeways. See the promo here:
Perhaps the most amazing part of 123D Catch is its cost—or lack thereof. In fact, the whole app suite is free of charge. There are plenty of free open source 3D modeling programs out there. But none come coupled with the 3D scanning and 3D printing capabilities of 123D Catch.
Similarly, there are other handheld and desktop scanners. Have been for awhile. Competitors include Z Corp (though Z Corp’s site no longer lists their futuristic handheld scanner) and Next Engine. But most scanners are unaffordable for the average user. A new startup, Matterport, is working on a handheld 3D scanner at a fraction of the cost of the competition. But one wonders how much of their target audience just got gobbled up?
Cheap is good. But let’s not go overboard. You pay for what you get, and so far, 123D Catch isn’t nearly as robust as a full 3D scanner.
For one, the app requires a laborious process of photo taking. Other 3D scanners require less from the user. You either place the item on a pad and let the scanner get to work, or sweep it across your object, in the case of a handheld scanner. (It's a tradeoff between labor and cost and ultimately a limitation of the hardware—the iPhone can't circle the subject without your hand and eye.)
Further, the app works great with simple objects, but less so with complicated ones. I tried a bouquet of flowers for my first project and got a distorted model full of data holes. (My second attempt with a jar came out beautifully.)
Finally, because the software stitches the photos together by identifying shared features between them, there are a number of limitations to what it can model.
Autodesk advises against shooting glossy or reflective surfaces, featureless surfaces, or surfaces with repetitive patterns. The object must be completely still and the light source consistent. That means no moving your item to capture all the sides or shooting with a flash. Night shooting is probably out too. Autodesk suggests shooting in shade or on an overcast day, if using an iPhone or iPad.
Put another way, for the amateur 3D modeler 123D Catch is exciting. For the pro—it doesn’t quite cut it. (Not yet at least.)
Of course, that’s just the point. The real story isn’t how robust the app is—the technology will improve—but how potentially disruptive it and other apps like it could be. So far, we're seeing plenty of tech and affordable devices. The jury is still out on whether or not there is broad adoption at home or in manufacturing. But it looks more and more promising every day.
Most impressive of all is just how quickly 3D fabrication tech is advancing. When Singularity Hub covered the Z Corp handheld 3D scanner in 2009 we said:
“These products are still in the early generation paradigm: expensive and used almost exclusively in industry. But they won’t stay there. Technology gets cheaper and more democratic as it is improved, so we should look forward to a time when the kind of 3D printing and scanning we see in these videos would fit in anyone’s budget.”
Almost exactly three years later 123D Catch makes 3D scanning free (most budgets can accommodate that one) and fully democratic—an awe inspiring example of technological acceleration.