The 3D Future of Your Smartphone Camera

Which, if nothing else, is good for robots.

A matte black robotic camera the size of a 1980s lunchbox sits atop a tripod. On its face, there are three 2D cameras and three 3D sensors. There's a handle on one end sprouting from the left side of the device.

Its handler hits a button on an iPad app, and it begins to move. Over the next 24 seconds, it will make six stops as it spins 360 degrees. The imagery data will be sent to the a room full of servers, turned from a point cloud into a textured 3D mesh, and returned to the tablet.

After a single scan, the basic features of the room are already visible on the screen. We move the camera to another spot, and hit record again. More details fill in. 

Matterport iPad software (Alexis Madrigal)

After four to six more scans and twenty minutes in the cloud, the system will have created a textured, photorealistic 3D model of the room. It's dimensionally accurate, too, so you could, for example, measure the ceiling height or the distance between walls. For gestalt realism, I'd put the 3D models it creates somewhere in-between a Playstation 2 game and a Playstation 3 game. 

All in, it might take half an hour or an hour to turn a physical space into a photorealistic virtual space. Doing something like this in the past would have taken orders of magnitude longer.

This is the Matterport system, and it debuts today at $4,500, or about the cost of a professional digital camera like the Canon 5D Mark III and a nice lens. The necessary access to the cloud platform runs an extra $50-$150 a month, depending on usage.

This is a tool for professionals. But so were the original lug-about laptops or those cell phones shaped like bricks. In the next few years, Matterport's CEO Bill Brown told me, every picture you take will have a three-dimensional component. 

"The company started with the long-term vision that there is going to be a 3D sensor in everyone's pocket," Brown said. "We know that we're going to get there ... We think it's as big as the transition from film to digital."

Matterport CEO Bill Brown (Alexis Madrigal)

Brown's been working on 3D imaging since his days at Canesta, which created the technology that eventually came to power the latest-generation of Microsoft's Kinect controller

Along with the co-founders of Matterport, Matt Bell and Dave Gausebeck, he's obsessed with the idea that you'll have a 3D camera in your mobile device soon. 

They've even had a chance to play with Google's early incarnation of that vision, the mysterious Project Tango, which purports to create simple 3D maps of a space with sensors embedded in the phone. "These sensors allow the phone to make over a quarter million 3D measurements every second, updating its position and orientation in real-time, combining that data into a single 3D model of the space around you," the project site says.

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