A few weeks ago I slipped on an Oculus Rift headset and visited the future of virtual reality. In a millisecond, I was transported from a drab office park in Mountain View, CA to the middle of a showcase home in Portola Valley, CA that had been rendered as a life-size model by the Matterport 3D Camera.
It was the closest I’m likely to get to teleportation. The details of my immediate surroundings were completely replaced by the virtual world. Using a keypad, I could move around and explore the home’s nooks and crannies at my leisure.
I floated through the kitchen, admiring the ash wood floors, the marble countertops and the built-in stone hearth. In the next room, the dining room table was set for six. On my left, I glimpsed an impressionist nude painting on the wall and drifted over for a closer look. Tiring of the painting, I headed into the living room where a comfortable couch stretched invitingly in front of a fireplace. (You can watch a 2D version of a tour of the home at the bottom of the post.)
Matterport began sending cameras to members of its early adopter program this month, and they’ll start selling them in larger quantities in January. While 3D cameras and viewers have been around more than a century—remember the View-Master?—what is unique about Matterport’s camera and cloud-processing software is that they effortlessly turn the real world into a virtual spaces that can be shared and explored.
Matt Bell, Matterport’s chief strategy officer, began working on the system three years ago, after it became apparent that 3D sensors had reached a point where they could be cheaply and affordably mass produced. What was missing, he realized, was the software that would take the raw 3D data and stitch it together to create 3D spaces that could be accessed on any computer, altered and shared.
It took Bell and his chief technology officer, David Gausebeck, close to a year to turn the problem into mathematical equations that a computer could recognize and solve. The next challenge was to create a camera that would reliably produce high-quality 3D scans, regardless of whom was using it. They ended up with an automated model that, once activated, spins around on a tripod. All a user has to do is move the tripod around to ensure 360 degree coverage of a space and occasionally press the start button. The scan is processed in the cloud and available for viewing on an iPad or computer.
“Traditionally, working with 3D data has been this nightmare of formats and expensive tools and tricky interfaces,” Bell said. “With Matterport we wanted to make it dead simple.” More than a camera, Matterport is a 3D ecosystem that handles all the heavy lifting associated with 3D models, including rendering the data, displaying it online and offering a way for people to interact with the virtual space, either using traditional interfaces or a 3D headset like the Oculus Rift.
David Colleen, the CEO of Planet 9 Studios, has been using Matterport’s camera cum scanner for almost a year. He’s an old hand at 3D laser scanning, the 3D technology traditionally used by architects, surveyors and engineers. His company Planet 9 Studios has been building 3D apps and constructing 3D models for more than 20 years. As one of a handful of beta testers, Colleen used Matterport’s camera to scan a ceiling for a remodel of Stanford Hospital, to scan a new tunnel system for a winery in Napa and to scan the historic foyer skylight of the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.
Colleen is particularly proud of the skylight project. The contractor, ARG Conservation Services, was about to extract the exact measurements needed to preserve the leaky structure from the scan, reducing the time and cost of the project.
Cantor skylight courtesy David Colleen
“The Matterport scanner is a big breakthrough because it cuts out a lot of the time and expense of old-fashioned scanners,” Colleen said. Traditional laser scanners from Leica and Faro cost between $40,000 and $100,000 dollars, compared with just a few thousand for Matterport. They are also cumbersome to use. Colleen said he used to spend a day in the field and then ten days in the office processing the data. “A lot of people bought them, and they are sitting in a room,” he said.
Colleen calls Matterport’s system “quintessentially disruptive,” and foresees an explosion in demand, particularly in the construction industry.
Meanwhile, Daniel Schumaker, founder of Contrast Forensics, see a role for Matterport in the criminal justice system. A specialist in crime scene reconstruction, Schumaker used Matterport’s camera to scan the apartment complex where George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
Schumaker said he has tried other solutions, including Autodesk 123D, free software that will convert 2D photos into a 3D model, but he said Matterport was more accurate and easy to use. “I could see every single law enforcement agency buying this,” he said.
Bell said the company is initially going to focus on the areas of construction, home improvement and insurance. “Each of these markets is especially large and especially gungho about adopting our technology quickly,” he said. Once manufacturing ramps up, however, the camera will be available for purchase by anyone who wants it—from heads of criminal investigation divisions to virtual tourist agencies.
Is there a place you’ve always wanted to see but lacked the time or the money for travel? Maybe Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal or Everland? Get ready. The time is coming when you will be able to tour the world without ever leaving your living room.