3D Scanning Methods – A brief overview

There is a growing trend in 3D scans being used and in demand across a lot of industries worldwide. This has pushed the demand for high quality scanners, scanning techniques and improvements in workflows and the software used to reproduce accurate and colored 3D models of scanned surfaces.

I’m only going to touch the surface of all the techniques, software and hardware involved in 3D scanning. It has become a vast, technical monster encompassing numerous technologies across many different industries.

In a feature of blogs we’ll be writing, we’ll cover in more detail the most popular software and hardware used in creating 3D scans. For now, I’ll stick to an overview.

When did 3D scanning start?

3D scanning was developed in the 1960s to record the shape and surface of environments and objects. It meant utilising lights, cameras and projectors. Kind of similar to structured light methods now (minus the computer). It took a lot of time to set these up to capture 3D scans accurately. It was a completely new technology after all. You can imagine a lot of trial and error was involved, especially as they didn’t have the computing power we have today.

We can relate to these early pioneers in 3D scanning – a little anyway. Like when it comes to setting up a photogrammetry rig for the first time, let’s just say there is a lot of trial and error (and cursing).

In the 1980s, there was a new scanning technique on the block. It utilized white light, lasers and shadowing. This could capture a surface with the help of the latest in computer technology (floppy disk style).

Cyberware Laboratory Inc were one of the first to come up with a Head Scanning rig using this technology. Unfortunately, they went out of business in 2011, but thanks go out to them for setting the first 3D scanning ‘rig’. Check it out in the image below. I can confirm the lady was in fact happy at the time of capture – though don’t quote me on it.


A full decade later, full body 3D scanners finally came onto the market. Super sexy, as can be seen in the image below.

Sexy full body scanner

These scanners were not quite what we have today. They didn’t have speed, efficiency, or accuracy. Typical of progress in technology, this was driven on by the need for more affordable, fast, accurate solutions, as well as having the ability to capture color surface data. This was particularly important to the 3D modellers in the 90s. Something that the technologies created by Faro and Immersion, at the time, couldn’t quite tackle.

According to Dr Mostafa Abdel-Bary Ebrahim of Assiut University:

“In 1996, 3D Scanners took the key technologies of a manually operated arm and a stripe 3D scanner – and combined them in ModelMaker”

This was the first ‘Reality Capture System’ and could create 3D models with color, in no time. It took 30 years to reach this stage, fast forward another 20 years and we’re leaps and bounds ahead.

Where is 3D scanning at now?

Anyone who’s ever had to explain to someone unfamiliar with 3D scanning, knows how difficult it can be when you actually try to tell them about it. For me, it normally goes something like this:

Mr Stranger: ‘So what is 3D scanning?’
Me: ‘Well, it depends, there’s many different methods. I mean, you can do it with a laser, with structured light, which is to say a projector, cameras, and lighting. Then there’s also photogrammetry, which you can do with a camera and…”

It’s then you notice Mr Stranger’s eyes glaze over, while they ponder whether you’re sane.
It’s tough to explain because today there are so many methods of 3D scanning. Then within each method, there are so many different techniques and optimisations each capture artist has made. Could be settings on a camera, a lens, polarization, throwing loads of cameras together, or getting the latest Faro has to offer in high-tech (and high-cost!) scanning kit. And to be fair to Mr Stranger, scanning has been commonly associated with the medical industry – when the general public are concerned.

Then you can get into the uses for 3D scans. From the preservation of artefacts for museums and archaeologists, reverse engineering, prototyping, architecture, quality control, prosthetics, medical use, 3D scanning actors, extras, props and locations for films and games. The list goes on and keeps growing.
Sooner or later, actors might just need to be scanned and not even act anymore. VFX artists could make them do what they want them to do, like a puppeteer (even more so than they do already…). Now that’s a scary thought!

Scanning methods

There are many, but I’m going to stick to the ‘Big 3’. Bear in mind, this is just an overview. Going in to detail for each one would take an essay or two, and more mental power than I can exert at the minute.

Structured Light

The concept behind Structured light is using a camera, a projector, a turntable for the subject being scanned, and a computer with the right software. Put them together and you get a 3D scan! Ok, it’s not that easy. But that’s the crux. The projector projects structured light (hence the name), a turntable rotates the object being scanned, captured by the camera, which takes images of the projections. This is then fed into a computer that creates the 3D model.

A Mephisto 3D scanner is a good example of the traditional setup. It produces a high res texture map, and creates the 3D scan in real time after each image is taken. Inition, in the UK, used this method to scan and 3D print some cool lifelike models of top fashion designers heads.

While the Artec range of scanners (or ‘irons’ as I like to call them) is a more mobile and practical take on the technology.

Structured Light Scanners

The traditional method of structured light doesn’t seem quite as popular as it once was. Even with the Kinect 2 scanner being more easily available. But rather than a projector, it uses infrared to read it’s environment, which is limited by the field of view of the sensor. Artec, having packaged and branded it well, have arguably turned projected light into a more practical and optimised 3D scanning application.

LiDAR and Laser scanning

Pretty well known, especially in the fields of engineering and manufacturing. Using laser technology to scan, involving the laser being fired out to touch a surface. The distance between the point the laser met the surface and the laser itself is measured. This creates a point in 3D space. Add millions of points and you get a detailed 3D scan.
That’s the idea and it has been implemented incredibly well by companies like Faro. Their Faro Focus series have become synonymous with LiDAR scanning.

Structured Light Scanners

Although this method is incredibly accurate, it doesn’t produce color at a high resolution. The latest Faro Focus scanners can produce low-res texture, but it doesn limit its usefulness.

Based on the accuracy and speed with which LiDAR can capture large areas, without the texture, the use of this tech is more commonly used in manufacturing and engineering. Though it also proves very useful scanning large film sets and shoot locations for VFX artists to recreate and improve on a film scene.


‘Mr Popular’, photogrammetry is the trending technique in 3D scanning for many. This is for good reason. It’s affordable. You only need a camera, good lighting, some tech know-how, the persistence to learn, a computer, and software.

The software is relatively inexpensive compared to most on the market. You can pick up a standard Agisoft Photoscan license for $179. While new kid on the block, RealityCapture, has a 3 month trial offer available for 99 €. Autodesk are getting on the scene with their Memento application in the beta phase, among a few others they’ve released, but more on software later. One thing you can be sure of, Memento wont be cheap.

The software is relatively inexpensive compared to most on the market. You can pick up a standard Agisoft Photoscan license for $179. While new kid on the block, RealityCapture, has a 3 month trial offer available for 99 €. Autodesk are getting on the scene with their Memento application in the beta phase, among a few others they’ve released, but more on software later. One thing you can be sure of, Memento wont be cheap.

So the rest of the kit needed, a camera, computer and your own time, are all very accessible.

The premise is straightforward. Take photos of a subject, each photo essentially being a ‘puzzle piece’, combine them using photogrammetry software, and bam! A 3D scan is born. Well, not quite. I’ll get a little into the process.

There are things to think about regarding the camera for a start. Each image needs to be focused, a camera naturally needs good lighting, the ISO and depth of field settings need to be optimised for the subject and the environment. Along with a steady hand, or better yet, a tripod.
This is just to name a few. Photogrammetry capture artists are always improving their own techniques.

As well as the settings, you need enough photos, or ‘puzzle pieces’, for the software to be able to put together the 3D model of your scan data. Generally, the better the image quality, the more images of the subject you have, the better the end result of the scan.

Photogrammetry has so far proven a very cost effective, accessible and adaptive solution. Creating high quality scans and texture maps over a manageable processing time.

I’ll admit, I haven’t delved into the processing involved and have left out steps such as sparse and dense cloud creation. These will be covered in more detail in a future blog. Now on to the next part.

Smartphones and scanning

Photogrammetry can also be done on a smartphone. Makes sense, given they have pretty good cameras built in. Autodesk released the 123D Catch app, for example. This is essentially a guided photogrammetry tool. Directing the user to where they need to take photos all around a subject. Once taken, the photos are uploaded to the Autodesk cloud for processing. It’s great, they’ve taken the processing step out of it for you and make your scan available in a 3D viewer within the app once it’s done.
The only catch (see what I did there) is the quality created isn’t exactly the best for 3D asset use. Still, when you consider the guys producing scans in the 60s, imagine telling them you can have the power of 3D scanning in the palm of your hand!

Further to the ‘empowerment of the smartphone’ for 3D scanning, Occipital released their Structure Sensor for the iPad concept onto Kickstarter in September 2013. It uses the concept of Structured Light to enable 3D scanning Attaching external hardware via USB to the iPad. Within hours it had reached it’s goal of $100,000.
Today, combined with the itSeez3D app, it can scan and create quality 3D models of scans. It’s similar to 123D Catch, but the results are driven towards augmented reality. You could use it in future to 3D scan your living room and add in that IKEA table, to be sure it will fit.
3D Systems produce hardware for the iPhone, as well as the iPad. This is called the iSense. It does basically the same thing as the Structure Sensor and can also be used with the itSeez3D app.

It’ll be interesting in the years to come to see what developers come up with and how they’ll make use of this hardware. Particularly when you consider virtual reality.

To wrap up

There’s a growing trend that 3D scanning is seeing more popular use across all industries all over the world. It could become something used in Space travel, every day use, seeing what your IKEA furniture will look like in your living room before you buy it. Shopping virtually online. With the techniques behind 3D scanning becoming increasingly accessible to the masses, it’ll be interesting to see how things turn out over the next five or so years!

What does the future entail? Will we see tennis ball sized dronelike scanners that we can toss into the air and send scanning an environment (ala Prometheus). Or see them more like something out of Star Trek? All I know is, I’m looking forward to the future.

To Mostafa A-B Ebrahim for an excellent article on the History of 3D scanning, which can be found here.

Written by James Hanline.

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