"Computers are now an indispensable tool for designing everything from chairs and lamps to carburetors and airplane wings, but the machines have been as thick as a brick when it comes to copying objects that already exist," notes a recent issue of Discover magazine.
But not any more, thanks to the work of an interdisciplinary team of UW researchers, who have developed a 3-D photography technique to capture, view, and manipulate computer representations of the shape and appearance of objects. The invention was recognized by the 1995 Discover Awards for Technological Innovation as a finalist in the software category.
UW computer scientist Tony DeRose teamed up with Tom Duchamp from the UW mathematics department, John McDonald and Werner Stuetzle from the UW statistics department, and Jon Webb of Carnegie Mellon University, to produce a prototype hardware/software system for 3-D photography.
The current set-up consists of four color video cameras connected to a personal computer, together with software for accurately and automatically recording and modeling the shape of physical objects.
Three-dimensional photography is similar in principle to a number of other technologies for audio and video data that convert aspects of physical reality into digital form. "We expect 3-D photography to have a similarly large impact," says DeRose, "because 3-D photographs can be used in ways the original physical objects cannot." For example, they can be stored in databases and later retrieved; transmitted electronically over long distances; viewed on color monitors; used in computer simulations; manipulated and edited using software tools; and used as templates for making copies—either electronic or physical ones.
The UW team foresees many applications of the technology. For example, companies marketing on the Internet may provide 3-D photographs of their products for inspection by potential customers. Museums may use 3-D photography to archive their collections. Plastic surgeons could record their clients' current appearance and then explore surgical options. Interior designers may take 3-D photographs of spaces and of furniture, and then assemble these images into a virtual environment where options can be evaluated and client preferences noted. And manufacturing firms may eventually use such a system to eliminate warehouses full of old spare parts, converting them into computer data, and then back into physical form when the need arises.