Augmented reality has never been nearly as cool as its name suggests. Even when it isn't gimmicky, it's virtually useless, in large part because your mobile camera's version of "reality" is short one dimension. Scanning and computer vision company Occipital, however, wants to add real depth to your tablet's vision with the Structure Sensor, a Kickstarter- backed product that shipped to backers late last year. The $349 Structure Sensor is a Kinect-like camera that fits on the back of an iPad or, with some hacking, any other device. With the bracket on, your tablet doesn't just see objects, it can figure out how far away they are, doing anything from turning an object into a 3D model to measuring the distance of a room.
Occipital's creators aren't in the business of making games or augmented reality apps. They're not really even in the business of camera hardware, though that's the product they're selling. Their hope is that the bundled Structure SDK will become an industry standard for camera makers and developers alike. Today, though, they showed us a few of the ideas they have in mind, including one of the simplest uses of the camera: 3D scanning.
The Structure Sensor can't pick up as many details as a stationary scanner, but it's a clear winner in speed
Stationary 3D scanners, most notably MakerBot's Digitizer, have started percolating through the 3D printer world — and if you're looking for fine detail, you should stick with them. The Structure Sensor doesn't deal well with objects smaller than the medium-sized stuffed animal sitting in the hospitality suite, and it overlays larger ones with a soft, relatively low-detail mesh. The upside, though, is that it's pretty cheap and extremely fast. Scanning a small object on the Digitizer takes about ten minutes; creating a model with the Structure Sensor takes as much time as you need to walk slowly around the object. The iPad camera can capture and overlay textures on the model, and the software lets you seal up gaps and export it for use as a virtual asset or a 3D-printable design. A large bust of Julius Caesar looked fantastic as a textured 3D design, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh looked like a well-rendered video game character from 1998, and my DSLR was a vaguely camera-shaped blob.
These 3D scanner capabilities caught the attention of printing company 3D Systems, which has struck a deal to offer self-branded versions of the Structure Sensor. But the augmented reality uses, rough as they are right now, are intriguing. One demo is a more sophisticated version of AR special effects apps, letting you scan a corner of a room and throw balls for a virtual pet — toss the ball at a chair and it will bounce off; throw it under the table and the cartoon cat will disappear underneath to chase it. Another captures the walls, floor, and furniture of a room, noting the real dimensions and turning it into a virtual map, albeit one that my clumsy scanning left full of holes. Ikea already lets you place virtual products in your house, but this could take the guesswork out of scale and, Occipital suggests, even let you move scanned models of your own furniture around the new additions.
The software platform still has some obvious glitches. The cat would slip through thin chair legs and pop through the table at the edge of the frame, and Occipital is still working on getting its tracking mechanism to work with cylindrical objects like the Coke can I completely failed to capture. It's also only as strong as the ecosystem that can be built upon it, which means Occipital is depending on early adopters to really take advantage of its work. The Structure Sensor's saving grace, though, is that it's one of the cleverest and most ambitious mobile augmented reality projects I've seen — even the failures are fun to watch.