Tipping Point for 3D Laser Scanning and Point Cloud Data Management

By Joe Croser

As a GIS professional you already understand the benefits of fast, accurate field data capture. I also imagine you appreciate the potential for reusing the rich point cloud model as context within your existing workflows. So why do some people think that 3D laser scanning is - and always will be - just a specialist process, the broad adoption of which is constrained by expensive hardware and islands of software that limit down-stream use? Perhaps because it's true, or at least it has been true.

For years, 3D laser scan models known as "point clouds" have been stuck in the survey department, or at best they've been limited to a few desktops which had installed expensive software apps for working with these very large datasets. Performance was poor, and the scan-to-model workflows were fractured with parallel processes requiring multiple software products that didn't reuse the same data.

Consequently teams could barely wait to re-model the point cloud to create geometry consisting of surfaces and solids for reuse in the context of their existing CAD and GIS software and workflows. No wonder, then, that demand for point cloud models was low. Few could afford the hardware required to capture them, and even fewer downstream were aware that a point cloud ever existed - its short life ending long before the data reached the masses that could benefit most from using them.

But that was then and this is now; 3D laser scanning adoption is changing and the debate is heating up. It's almost impossible to debate technology adoption without someone referencing the "chasm" that must be "crossed" before a product or process can achieve success. Geoffrey Moore's book, Crossing the Chasm, was the first of its kind to clearly describe the technology adoption lifecycle, recognizing that to make it onto "main street" a product or process must move beyond the world of the visionary or early adopter and be broadly adopted by the majority.

Author Malcolm Gladwell described the chasm crossing as a "tipping point." In his aptly named book he claimed that the right intervention at just the right time could cause a tipping point and start a cascade of change which would spread virally like an epidemic. According to Gladwell, a tipping point might arrive when a breakthrough technology became universally affordable or universally useful. For 3D laser scanning I think the tipping point is here.

At Intergeo 2010, FARO released a new tripod scanner called the Focus3D. At half the price and half the size of the scanner it replaces (the Photon 120), the Focus3D has turned the 3D laser scanning game on its head. Service providers that previously could not afford an accurate 3D laser scanner can now join the revolution at a bargain price. And the innovators who were early to realize the value of fast, accurate and error free data capture will benefit from new business opportunities as increased awareness drives demand for 3D point cloud model deliverables.

However, the hardware is only half of the story; much is happening on the software front too. For example, Pointools, a UK-based independent software vendor, with its Pointools POD format now enables point cloud model reuse inside scores of Bentley, Autodesk, Rhino and SketchUp applications (with more on the way), by eliminating the time-consuming translation that plagues other offerings.

For infrastructure professionals the tipping point for point cloud model reuse came when Bentley Systems licensed the Vortex platform for inclusion inside its portfolio of infrastructure software, which includes MicroStation, Bentley Map, InRoads, GEOPAK and MX, to highlight just five in the Geo/Civil space. As a result, Bentley software users can now view and reference point cloud models as a standard geometry type to provide accurate context for their projects, no longer wasting time and money modeling the context for which they'll never be remunerated.

Last week I swapped emails with a guy who told me that he used his Pointools Edit software to work with 300GB of point cloud data. Consisting of 40+ scans, he took a week to export the many scans from his proprietary Leica file format before importing the point cloud into Pointools POD format for reuse. I thought 300GB was a typo, so I checked and he confirmed. It was not a typo!

So, with affordable 3D laser scanning hardware and the right software that supports the broadest range of CAD and design applications in the software portfolios of the two biggest AEC software vendors - Autodesk and Bentley - 3D laser scanning is crossing the chasm. Today point cloud model demand is on the upswing, hardware prices are going down, and fractured workflows are being eliminated as the number of everyday software products that reuse the Pointools POD format passes the tipping point.

The Pointools software portfolio consists of a third-party development platform, CAD software plug-ins, and stand-alone applications for point cloud processing and visualisation.

Published Monday, December 6th, 2010

Written by Joe Croser

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