You may have heard: 3-D is hot. So hot in fact that now it's found its way onto a device you'd think had zero 3-D powers: The iPhone 4 (or most recent iPod Touch). It's via a scanning app called Trimensional that uses the iPhone's front camera, and no extra gizmos other than a dark room.
Trimensional's makers Phlosoft are calling it the "world's first 3-D scanner for iPhone," noting that the app lets you "instantly capture 3-D models of yourself, friends, and family and share the amazing results with the world." Big promises, for a device that has no stereo-imaging camera facilities (like some of the new digital cameras hitting CES) nor any advanced infra-red depth sensors like those found in Kinect, nor any clever LIDAR laser-scanners that high-end 3-D scanning firms and movie studios use.
This scanner works on a far simpler principle: It uses directs light onto the scanning object from different directions to calculate where the illuminated segments of the object are in 3-D space in front of the iPhone, via some neat math. To do this you simply pop the subject in a darkened room, hold the subject and iPhone as still as possible and run the app—it illuminates different sides of the iPhone 4's screen in turn, recording the scene via the front-facing camera, and then delivering the result as a neat animated image.
Dubious? Check the example video below.
Somewhat skeptical, but understanding the basic math and physics here, I tried it out—as you can see at the top of this post. It actually works amazingly well. Of course there are compromises with forcing clever behavior onto a device that's not quite set up for the task, and the app makes some mistakes: My stubble gave the app a few problems and my nose isn't really that big (honest). But the results speak for themselves—this really is a 3-D object scanner for the iPhone.
Now, what's it useful for? Phlosoft suggest it's more for fun than anything else, noting you can "capture goofy expressions" and share the results with friends. But it does have other utilitarian uses—imagine you've got a gift you want to send to someone, but want their opinion first: Send them a couple of 3-D scans and they'll get a better impression than from a photo alone. Remembering Radiohead's iconic 3-D music video for House of Cards, we also suspect someone'll quickly adapt the app for an art project. To say nothing of the more, ahem, intimate uses this could find between lovers.
But if Phlosoft expands the app's powers, and refine its processing algorithm, it's possible you could output the 3-D data, send it off to one of those new rapid-prototyping-on-demand firms and have a lovely 3-D printed replication of your scan as a neat paperweight. Plus the app reinforces that 3-D, one way or another, really is the technology du jour, and it'll probably herald a host of copycat apps on the iPhone and Android platforms.
To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.