Turning Physical Memories Into Digital Ones with Photogrammetry

As much as I want to be able to keep every single thing the girls and I make forever, I have to accept at some point that we’re going to drown in stuff, hoarder-style, if we do actually keep everything.

There are a lot of memories contained in stuff. Take, for example, this spaceship, hammered together out of old juice bottles, plastic bits, and cardboard.

First Spaceship

The first really involved craft the girls and I ever made, a spaceship. Look closely into the window in front and you’d see the Enterprise D bridge with me in the big chair, the girls at ops and the helm, and NJ at tactical.

This thing has been shuffled around, banged up, broken and repaired a number of times over its years-long life and I’m starting to think that it’s time for it to go. It’s become something of an albatross for storage. Unless I hang it from the ceiling in my workshop (which I may well still do, and which the Smithsonian tragically did to the original Enterprise shooting model for years), it’s got to go. But this was a first for a couple of reasons. One, it’s the first craft that took us a while (the girls were quite young at this point), and two, it’s the first time that something we made depicted us as the family we’d become. It was ridiculously presumptuous on my part to put us all together as a crew at such an early stage of our relationship, and it’s pretty miraculous that time has borne out the funny little family that we kind of decided we’d be that day.

So, rather than continue shuffling it through storage and eventually junking it and losing it forever, I decided today that I’d try and start turning physical memories into digital ones to preserve and possibly 3D print as Micro Machines-scale souvenirs or keepsakes. One way or another, I wanted better documentation of things that I love.

I tell you, I was not nearly so nostalgic about stuff like this before kids. Stuff changes, folks.

So I made a public declaration to try and keep myself honest:

Yeah, public declarations of things really keeps me honest about stuff. Please see: sidebar ad about the podcast. Sigh.

Yeah, public declarations of things really keeps me honest about stuff. Please see: sidebar ad about the podcast. Sigh.

Fortunately, like I mentioned in the post, I’ve got a new toy, the Canon EOS Rebel T5i. Not a pro camera yet, but pretty damn nice.

Canon EOS Rebel T5i

So I set up the first spaceship the girls and I made and began photographing it for use in Autodesk’s brilliant 123D Catch software. It’s photogrammetry software, using the power of Autodesk’s cloud to stitch together 2D images into 3D models. The process is basically to circle the object in question with your camera, capturing it from all angles.

Some 93 photos later and a bit of choosiness, I came up with 70 images (the max for 123D Catch) that were pretty clear and usable.

first spaceship stitch folder

The results were not bad. This was far from an ideal test of the software; photogrammetry doesn’t work particularly well on a) reflective surfaces, because it messes with the software’s perception of depth, and b) transparent surfaces, because the computer doesn’t know the difference between a background seen through a transparent surface and the background seen not through a transparent surface. This model is primarily shiny silver with big bits worn away by time, moving around, and damage. But as a test case, the resulting mesh was still pretty good.

123d catch model of a spaceship

As seen in 3DS Max. You can see where the shininess and translucency resulted in transcription errors between the physical model and the digital stitch.

It’s a good first result, but obviously not an end product. I opened it in Meshmixer (a great simple utility for combining and modifying 3D models) to chop off the pedestal and do a little reworking of the model, and then into Sculptris (the baby brother of industry-standard digital sculpting software Zbrush) to start cleaning up the model. After about 10 minutes of smoothing and flattening, I came up with this:

Still not a final result, but significantly closer to the original.

Still not a final result, but significantly closer to the original.

I’ve gotten rid of a significant amount of inappropriate bumpiness and restored the bridge dome. It’s not a finished model, and I’ll unfortunately need to rebuild the textures, but this is a really encouraging start. I think that I can safely say after this experiment that I can reasonably expect to be digitizing physical objects with some success going forwards, and have models to mess with and to nostalgia-trip over for years to come.

Oh, and by the way, all the software I’m using, with the exception of 3DS Max, is free. FREE. Catch also has iOS and Android apps, so you can start scanning in your own physical memories right from your phone.

Until next time, folks, paddle your own canoe.

-Trevor

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