Co.Design

Photofly, A Free App, Makes 3-D Models Out Of Your Snapshots [Video]

You gotta see this to believe it.

Remember that scene in Mission: Impossible 3 where a spy walks around a bad guy at a party, surreptitiously snapping photos, which the IMF team then uses to make a 3-D mask of the bad guy's face? If you've ever wished you could do that in real life, Autodesk is going to blow your mind with its new experimental application Photofly. It does exactly the same thing, and creates an interactive 3-D digital model on your screen. And it's free. Here are some demo models made from nothing but amateur photos and consumer cameras (and Autodesk's automagical genius):

Mount Rushmore.
A (living) human head.
Some guy's kitchen.

Photofly generates its 2-D/3-D conversions using a technique that, surprisingly, is as old as photography itself: photogrammetry. By using clever geometry and other visual cues, the 3-D shape of a scene can be extracted from a 2-D image — quite accurately if networked computers do the heavy lifting and you supply images from many angles. It's the same idea as the famous "bullet time" effect in The Matrix, but now you can do it with cameraphone pictures of your cat. For free. (Did we mention that already?) Here are some shooting guidelines:

Granted, Photofly isn't perfect enough for Mission: Impossible jobs — shiny, transparent, or translucent objects are "almost impossible to stitch together," and you have to get up close and personal with the camera (or be skilled with a zoom lens) to reduce algorithm-confusing clutter in the frame. But who cares! Just the plain fact that you can insta-generate photorealistic 3-D interactive models of whatever you want is jaw-droppingly amazing. Autodesk suggests a few useful applications: architecture scouting, historical documentation/preservation, scientific visualization, and "miscellaneous fun stuff" (see cat idea above).

Personally, I wish I'd had this software last year when I was directing my film about the Lego Antikythera Mechanism — instead of visualizing shots and planning camera moves using crude models in Google SketchUp, I could have generated an interactive 3-D model of the Mechanism itself. Photofly offers enormous opportunities to designers and creative types of any stripe, so download it and get modeling — the software expires in December 2012! (Windows only, but Mac lovers can still use it by running Parallels.)

[Learn more and download Photofly here]

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