History of 3D scanners

3D laser scanning developed during the last half of the 20th century in an attempt to accurately recreate the surfaces of various objects and places. The technology is especially helpful in fields of research and design. The first 3D scanning technology was created in the 1960s. The early scanners used lights, cameras and projectors to perform this task. Due to limitations of the equipment it often took a lot of time and effort to scan objects accurately. After 1985 they were replaced with scanners that could use white light, lasers and shadowing to capture a given surface.

With the advent of computers, it was possible to build up a highly complex model, but the problem came with creating that model. Complex surfaces defied the tape measure, so in the eighties, the toolmaking industry developed a contact probe, which enabled a precise model to be created, but it was very slow. The aim was to create a system, to capture the same amount of detail but at higher speed, resulting in a more effective application – leading experts to start developing optical technology, because the use of light was much faster than a physical probe. This also allowed scanning of soft objects, which would be threatened by prodding. At that time, three types of optical technology were available:

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Stripe was clearly the way forwards, but it soon became apparent that the actual challenge faced was software based. The sensor would make several scans from different positions to capture an object in three dimensions. The challenge was to join those scans together, remove the duplicated data and sift out the surplus that inevitably gathers when you collect several million points of data at once.

One of the first applications was capturing humans for the animation industry. Cyberware Laboratories of Los Angeles developed this field in the eighties with their Head Scanner. By the mid-nineties they had developed into a full body scanner. The first3D scanner which they titled REPLICA launched for the first time in 1994. It allowed for fast, highly accurate scanning of very detailed objects making serious progress in laser stripe scanning. Meanwhile Cyberware were developing their own high detail scanners, some of which were able to capture object colour too, but despite this progress, true three-dimensional scanning – with these degrees of speed and accuracy – remained elusive.

Digibotics introduced a 4-axis machine, which could provide a full 3D model from a single scan, but this was based on laser point – not laser stripe – and was thus slow. It also lacked the freedom necessary to cover the entire surface of an object and could not digitise coloured surfaces. The costly optical scanners were soon forgotten once Immersion and FARO Technologies introduced low-cost manually operated digitisers. These could produce complete models, but their first editions were slow, particularly detailed models. They also lacked the ability to digitise coloured surfaces.

3D modellers were united in their quest for a scanner that was:

  • Accurate
  • Fast
  • Truly three dimensional
  • Capable of capturing colour surfaces
  • And reasonably priced

In 1996, 3D Scanners took the key technologies of a manually operated arm and a stripe 3D scanner, resulting in the world’s first incredibly fast and flexible Reality Capture System. The advancing technologies now produce complex models incorporating textures and colour, which can now be produced in mere minutes.