The Birth of Shape Photography

Tony DeRose
March 1996

A multidisciplinary group at the University of Washington, consisting of Tony DeRose (formerly with Computer Science & Engineering, now with Pixar), Tom Duchamp (Mathematics), and Werner Stuetzle and John McDonald (Statistics), has for several years been working on the algorithmic aspects of "shape photography" -- an emerging technology aimed at capturing, viewing, and manipulating digital representations of the shape and appearance of physical objects. Shape photography is similar to a number of other important technologies, such as digital audio and video, that convert aspects of physical reality into digital form. Like audio and video, shape photography is expected to have a large impact, because shape photographs can be used in ways the original physical objects cannot. For example, they can be stored in, and retrieved from, databases; transmitted electronically over long distances; viewed on CRTs; used in computer simulations; manipulated and edited in software; and used as templates for making electronic or physical copies.

It is easy to envision a future where shape photographs will be almost as ubiquitous as standard photographs are now. A shape photography viewer will be a standard component of World Wide Web browsers; companies marketing on the Internet will provide shape photographs of their products for potential customers to inspect and possibly integrate into their own virtual reality environments; museums will use shape photography to archive their collections; plastic surgeons will use shape photography to record before and after images of their patients and to do surgical planning; interior designers will take shape photographs of spaces and of furniture, fixtures, etc., and will be able to assemble them into a virtual environment.

The development of shape photography technology consists of hardware research to develop better cameras, and software research to convert the raw image data into efficient and useable surface models. The UW group has made substantial strides on the software side. Their efforts have resulted in a string of publications at SIGGRAPH (the premier computer graphics conference), and they were selected as finalists in the 1995 Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. On the hardware side, shape cameras were, until very recently, expensive (costing at least $50K), bulky (weighing at least one hundred pounds), and slow (with image capture taking from tens to hundreds of seconds). The breakthrough came from a research group led by Jon Webb at Carnegie Mellon University. The CMU group has demonstrated a shape camera that is inexpensive (costing approximately $2K to manufacture), light (weighing approximately one pound), and fast (with image capture taking less than 1/30-th of a second).

Both groups have sensed that the time is right to bring the newly developed technology to market. Jon Webb has founded a company called Visual Interface to manufacture shape cameras, and DeRose and Stuetzle have founded a company called Manifold Graphics to provide the necessary surfacing and viewing software. The two companies are partnering to deliver complete shape photography systems, initially for the plastic surgery market.