How 3D scanners are leaving the workshop and capturing life from all angles

Putting the recent TV commercial for BioShock Infinite in the same echelon as all-time ad classics like the Budweiser frogs, “Mean Joe” Green’s Coca-Cola, or fried eggs on drugs, would be a bit presumptuous. But the spot for the video game – with frenetic action, stunning computer-generated visuals, and a thumping soundtrack – has already left a mark on the 2013 advertising scene. The commercial has not only made BioShock Infinite well-known to hardcore gamers, but also to those who have never held a controller.

These tools are becoming more and more commonplace…it will become the norm in, if not months, a year or two.

But the real attraction of the commercial is Elizabeth, one of the game’s characters. To make the virtual Elizabeth as real-looking as possible, Blur Studio – the ad agency hired by Irrational Games to create the TV spot – reached out to Artec Group not only for its expertise in 3D scanning but also Artec’s Eva 3D scanner. The handheld device was used to scan the face of Anna Moleva, a Russian girl who was chosen to be the face of Elizabeth.

“They found a lovely, lovely woman in Russia,” said Anna Zevelyov, director of business development for Artec, a company headquartered in Russia and recently expanded into Palo Alto, California. “Don’t ask me how they found her or why in Russia. Since we have an office in Russia, our partner in L.A. asked us to scan her.”

While 3D scanners in themselves aren’t new, they used to be confined to workshops and engineering labs – and to anybody with deep pockets who can afford them. But a new crop of affordable scanners is giving creative agencies and even hobbyists a powerful new tool for bringing the real world into the digital realm.

Artec Eva 3D scanner.

Artec Eva 3D scanner.

“This scanning has been around for a while, actually, but it has always been unavailable to smaller-sized and medium businesses,” Zevelyov said. “In the past, they have cost between $150,000 and $200,000. They have been used frequently by the big guys, like the automotive industry, the aerospace industry, the Boeings. But the ma-and-pa shops couldn’t afford it.”

Artec introduced the first-generation of its handheld 3D scanner at a price point of around $15,000, which the company found immediately opened it up to a new audience of midsized companies, including freelance customers working on video games or the marketing surrounding them. And there’s a reason they’re turning to 3D scanners for the work, which might have previously been laboriously hand-drawn or at least drawn digitally.

“Let’s say you want to model a face in 3D to turn somebody into a computer game,” Zevelyov said. “You can either draw it by hand, and it’s going to take you many hours to do…what is a good way of cutting down on those hours is using a scanner. You can scan the actor, and you just saved yourself a whole day’s worth of work. So the scanner is a secret weapon, because it keeps slashing the old prices.”

For the BioShock commercial Moleva was asked to express different emotions with her face, and each expression was scanned and post-processed – all in roughly one hour – and then the 3D data was used to finish the commercial. Zevelyov said the scanner behind the process wasn’t necessarily doing anything that wasn’t available in the past, but it is doing it in a quicker and more cost-effective way than previously possible.

The Artec scanner is quickly becoming a tool for companies looking to scan one of the most difficult things to capture – people (due to their general inability to sit still) – rather than the industrial objects the industry previously focused on capturing. But the ability to scan humans came about more or less by accident, according to Zevelyov.

“Our technology stems from our work in biometrics and 3D face recognition,” Zevelyov said. “Basically, how it came about is we were developing a 3D face recognition device, and we realized that the technology behind this could be made into a general scanning device. It was kind of like a side project, and it really, really took off.”

And it has continued to take off, specifically in the gaming and special-effects industries.

“The fact of the matter is, these tools are becoming more and more commonplace, and I think especially in this industry, the gaming industry, the special effects industry, it will become the norm in, if not months, a year or two,” Zevelyov said. “The goal of this industry, which is to bring realism into the work, is also to cut down on the time of development significantly.


The Artec Eva 3D scanner being used to capture model Anna Moleva’s face, whose image was used for the video game character Elizabeth in the commercial for BioShock Infinite.

“How long does it take a video game developer to draw all of the cars in a car-related video game? If they have 1,000 models in a video game, how long is it going to take them to draw all of these models? Maybe they’ll just scan all of the cars. Right now, primarily, because the face is the harder thing to draw, because it’s harder to make look realistic, it’s used for human body scan, but really it can be used for anything.”

But the tech is not without its limitations. Because 3D scanning is still essentially done by projecting light and capturing the way it reacts with a built-in camera, the scanners have a tough time dealing with shiny objects. That’s not a major problem when it comes to human body scanning, but while the scanners are always evolving, Zevelyov said there is even a caveat in that realm – really dark hair, be it that of people or animals.

“The light doesn’t bounce back into the camera correctly,” she said. “So if you’re scanning a human head, you’re going to have a hard time scanning dark hair.

“We had a project where we were asked to scan the Brazilian soccer team – the national team, the world champions – and one of the players has this huge afro. That was a challenge, to say the least. It took a lot of finessing to figure out how to do it.”

But for Zevelyov – whose company has also been involved in industrial scanning because that’s where the money has traditionally been – despite the challenge it sometimes presents, the human element of handheld 3D scanning and its recent availability to more projects has been a stimulating experience.

“It’s extremely exciting,” she said. “You go see a movie, and you know that your scanner, your technology, has been used to bring that movie to life. The last James Bond movie – I’m not a big movie fan. I don’t remember the last time I was at a theater, to tell you the truth – I went specifically to see the special effects. I was sitting there nearly sobbing because I was so happy.”

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