Epic RealityScan Turns Your Smartphone Into A Powerful 3D Scanner And It's Free

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This author might be giving away his age a bit, but remember that Aerosmith music video where a teen-aged Jason London creates a VR scenario in which he's riding a motorcycle based on a toy that he scans into a computer using a camera? That was in 1993, for the song "Amazing," and I remember thinking at the time how it seemed both impossibly science-fiction and also all too plausible.

We're not quite to the "scan real-life objects into full-immersion VR" stage yet—we're still missing the "full-immersion" part of that equation—but "use a camera to scan objects into the computer" has been a thing for a while. It's called "photogrammetry" and it's the science of extracting 3D spatial data from 2-dimensional photographs.

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Man, those 90s fake computer UIs were amazing.

Epic Games really wants to be a one-stop shop for game development technologies, and photogrammetry has been making inroads in that field for some time. So it goes that Epic bought a company called Capturing Reality last year, and now it's debuting a product based on that company's technology, called RealityScan.

It's exactly what it says on the tin: install an app on your smartphone and then use it to "scan" real-life objects. The app will attempt to create a 3D model of the object, complete with photographic UV map (read: texture) data. You can see how it works (in theory) in this short video from Epic:

It's pretty impressive stuff, at least in theory. We aren't in the beta, so we haven't tried it ourselves, but The Verge's Jay Peters is, and his results were less than inspiring. Attempting to capture his desk chair resulted less in an object that looked like a smooth, hand-crafted 3D model and more like the results of other photogrammetry applications: a messy, blocky pile of polygons with an inaccurate shape.

Historically speaking, photogrammetry can produce shockingly-realistic objects, but it's not magic. The initial objects produced through photogrammetry typically require a lot of by-hand clean-up and meticulous massaging to make them look as good as hand-crafted 3D models. Epic's video above seems to imply that RealityScan doesn't need such steps, but we'd have to see it done before we'll believe the hype.

Game developers: It's Free Real Estate™.

It's interesting to ponder the fact that apps like this are sailing into completely uncharted copyright waters. If I paint a painting, and then you create a 3D version of that framed painting, is it still my art to which I own the copyright, or is the new 3D object now your own creation to copyright? If you 3D scan a folding table, can you then start printing and selling your own copies of that table? After all, the 3D object technically isn't the same object.

All of that stuff is for courts to decide, and that probably won't happen until someone makes an issue of it. In the meantime, folks with Apple devices can apply to join the RealityScan beta if they like, or simply wait until the early access release for iOS devices later this spring. Us Android peasants will have to wait until later this year for the full release.