From the Editor: The Democratization of Laser Scanning

A 366Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

Welcome to the ASPRS 2013 edition of LiDAR Magazine. This year’s ASPRS event is being held on the East coast in Baltimore, Maryland March 24 28. With its roots in remote sensing and photogrammetry this is the conference where the research being done on these topics by the universities is reported. This will of course include a significant number of papers on airborne LiDAR. ASPRS is in a transition. With software providing a lot of the expertise that once required 10+ years of hands on experience to master, particularly in photogrammetry the challenge is how to attract new professionals to the organization.

This edition of LiDAR Magazine has a wide variety of articles from obtaining ISO certification for mobile LiDAR services to a wildfire risk management strategy for power transmission utilities to the power of using 3D GeoPDFs for visualization. We are always on the lookout for interesting stories so please contact me if you have an idea. We want to help you to get the word out so the industry can benefit.

To close the loop on the discussion of a unified transportation data model the presentation at the Transportation Research Board’s Annual meeting in January was well received. I was also able to make contact with the Federal Highway Administration and a couple of people from individual state DOTs who voiced their support for the concept. The FHWA has more of a project lifecycle platform focus, which is certainly a step in the right direction and could easily be incorporated into the data model concept. There was also discussion with Bentley Systems around the TransXML standard data format which there may be some interest in reviving.

On to the issue of democratization–perhaps as the most impressive evidence to date of the mass market interest in our technology is what I think is the first 3D laser scanning smart phone app. You can’t get anymore ubiquitous than that. The start-up is called Moedls and although you need a separate laser light source and some way to rotate the object the product video shows what appears to be a very well thought out solution.

The creator John Fehr started the project as a way to save some of his daughter’s sculptures in digital form. After trying many different component options, Fehr selected a combination of parts that total around $300. Is this likely to become the next iPhone? I doubt it, but the mere fact that these kinds of ideas are being pursued and that they are finding their way into the press is tremendous news for the professional 3D markets that stand to benefit from this consumer interest.

As I have noted before this process is very similar to what happened with GPS and digital photography over the past 10 to 20 years. You can also add in GPUs–graphics processing units that are being created in large part for the gaming industry. The R&D budgets of companies creating products for the masses are orders of magnitude greater than Leica GeoSystems, Trimble or Faro combined. Plus they are not afraid to fail. Nine out ten of these start-up companies are not expected to succeed. That’s why they call it venture capital.

At the same time that the consumer markets are embracing laser scanning or perhaps more correctly the broader category of 3D, two major software companies in the professional space are also promoting democratization of the technology from within. Autodesk has been pushing this mantra for a number of years, not just about 3D, but CAD technology in general. When you have eight plus million licensed users and probably an equal or greater number of unlicensed users you can make a case that you are in fact opening up technology to a lot of people.

Having recently attended a couple of Bentley Systems’ events I can report that they are also promoting a similar philosophy when it comes to support for point clouds. Greg Bentley, keynote speaker at SPAR this year will explain that point clouds will soon be just another data type within MicroStation.

In both of these cases I think the pressure is on in 2013 to deliver on what I like to call the Big Promise. I learned very early in my career that there can be a big difference between what people say they are going to do and what they actually deliver. Autodesk acquired Alice Labs in the fall of 2011. Not to be outdone, Bentley acquired Pointools not that long after.

Bentley has begun to ship software (Descartes) that has integrated support for point clouds. Autodesk releases products once a year. Just about at the time you are reading this the Autodesk 2014 (they go by fiscal year end) products will be released. It’s a disciplined product development cycle, but add in the fact that as a publicly traded company, Autodesk is not allowed to discuss future product releases and it is difficult to know what will actually ship.

That being said for democratization to occur we need a significant increase in point cloud functionality to be available in MicroStation and AutoCAD. Both of these companies are playing "catch up". With the acquisitions they have made there is no question they have the technology. The question is whether they can integrate that technology into their development streams. By the middle of the year we should have a lot clearer picture. I’ll keep you informed.

Gene Roe, LS, PE, PhD Managing Editor & Co-Founder LiDAR Magazine

A 366Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE