The MakerBot 3D scanner doesn't look like much — an 8-inch turntable with a rectangular plastic bracket behind it. You might even wonder if some parts are missing from the $1400 device, which is available to order today for delivery early next month. But that trim design belies the device's complexity. And the one-button operation does nothing to show off the sophisticated inner workings of the software. "We've taken the time to get the software right and make it easy for people," said MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis at the scanner's public unveiling.
To appreciate the Digitizer, compare it to other devices. At the higher end, professional scanners can sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. At the lower end are apps, some fueled on Kickstarter, that use smartphone cameras or Microsoft Kinect depth cameras to stitch images together into — at best — a very rough approximation of the real-life object. In either case, the 3D scans require hours of polishing up in modeling software before the objects are printable.
On the Digitizer, the process takes about 12 minutes. And pressing one extra button sends the scan to a printer that can churn out near-perfect copies. The combination of scanner and printer is more than just a 3D photocopier, though. Once an object is digital, you can make any changes to it that you like.
To test it out, MakerBot uploaded a scan of the garden gnome statue that's become the mascot for the company's scanner advertisements, and asked people to make improvements. One person added a top hat, another made the beard bigger, but the winner created an entire chess-set of players derived from the gnome.
That's just for kicks, but the project shows what a simple scanning device can do. For years, 3D-print enthusiasts have told people that they can make replacements for doorknobs, broken parts of vacuums or other household items. But that assumes the average user knows enough about computer aided design (CAD) software to create these items from scratch. With the digitizer, that CAD step is removed.
Furthermore, the scans might never get printed. They could go form the basis of video game characters or other objects in 3D animations.
It sounds so simple, but let's look at what's really going on:
In the roughly 12 minutes after you press the button on the Digitizer's Mac, Windows or Linux software, the 8-inch turntable methodically rotates in 800 mini steps. All the while, a red laser shines a half-millimeter thick line down a slice of the shell. For each step, a camera snaps a photo of the red line, capturing all its contours. Then the process starts all over again with another laser firing from a different angle.
MakerBot's software takes these two scans and meshes them together, correcting for any errors and filling in blank spots to produce what's called a "watertight" model — one without holes, a requirement for 3D printing.
"Many of the 3D models that you see in videogames look great on the screen, but would never 3D print, because there are holes in them," said Pettis. Comprised of roughly 200,000 polygons, the Digitizer's scans compete with the most complex characters and objects that you see in AAA videogames like "Grand Theft Auto V."
Is the Digitizer for everyone? Not the way a Galaxy S4 or Xbox is. Pettis said he expects to sell tens of thousands of Digitizers. Many will go to professional designers and engineers for making prototypes, he said. But he definitely sees hobbyists joining in. "We launched this so that professionals can use it, and we made it affordable for everybody else," said Pettis.
Note: An earlier version of this article made an innacurate comparison between the polygon count of a Digitizer scan and that of videogame objects.