3D scanning — though it's been around since the 1960s — has been in the news of late, with Harvard using the technology to recreate ancient statues and MakerBot announcing a desktop scanner last month. But cheaper, faster and more accessible 3D scanners aren't just revolutionising how we print terrifying models of our own faces. They're also changing how we understand the city.
A fascinating story about urban-scale 3D scanning published on the Atlantic Cities this week explores how a San Francisco Bay Area architect named Scott Page is using a 3D scanner to generate super-accurate models of historic and dilapidated buildings. Emily Badger explains:
"[...] As we try to re-purpose an ageing building stock in our cities–not just treasured cathedrals, but also old offices and unremarkable apartment –we're going to need new ways of documenting and thinking about the buildings we already have.
Page's system takes a series of photographs and patches them together based on how light bounces off each surface. Rather than taking weeks to survey an old building, architects can now generate precise dimensions in just a few hours. Because the scanner uses colour photographs, the models are also incredibly beautiful, expressive documents — Page compares them to the first photographs ever made. "There is a magical quality to point cloud imagery, similar to the earliest photos that froze time onto small metallic plates," he writes on his website.
It's easy to imagine how ubiquitous 3D scanning could help us understand everything from crime scenes to disaster sites, where the structural integrity of a collapsed building could be nearly impossible to gauge. Then there are the ways 3D scanning could be subverted: imagine copycat architects building super-accurate replica buildings (and even entire neighbourhoods!), or the inevitable development of "stealth" materials designed to evade the scanner's gaze.