Making 3D Building Models with Your Tablet
Erin Green posted on January 19, 2016 |

Lately, building information modeling (BIM) software giants have been all about bringing models and information to the building site. This usually involves a cloud platform that links up to your tablet so you can see what’s going on.

But what if you could actually create those models and information on-site using your tablet?

The idea might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

 

Using Machine Vision for BIM

A 3D map of a building created using the ETH Zurich team's software. The red line shows where the user walked to generate the model. (Image courtesy of ETH Zurich/Thomas Schöps.)

A 3D map of a building created using the ETH Zurich team's software. The red line shows where the user walked to generate the model. (Image courtesy of ETH Zurich/Thomas Schöps.)

For quite some time, apps like Autodesk’s 123D Catch have given us the ability to scan objects in 3D using cell phones. However, we’ve been limited to relatively small objects like that Roman bust you saw at a museum or the ultimate Instagram picture of your dinner.

A new type of software developed by a research team at ETH Zurich, an engineering university in Switzerland, gives a tablet computer the ability to see, record and generate a 3D model of an entire building.

To do this, the tablet uses a fisheye camera lens to take multiple images of the building’s surface. It then uses its location and position to triangulate various elements pixel by pixel. Sound familiar? It’s a type of photogrammetry, which is a popular technology for creating 3D models of existing buildings, geographical formations or even large aircraft.

But how can a tablet see a building in 3D?


Project Tango

The software is part of Project Tango, which is being developed by Google’s secretive Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. For those of you who, like me, may not have heard of Project Tango previously, it’s more or less Google’s attempt at machine vision software.

Project Tango provides Android devices with human-like senses of spatial awareness and depth perception. It uses motion tracking to monitor a device’s position and orientation and incorporates area learning to let devices recognize familiar places.

Project Tango does this using a combination of computer vision, image processing and depth sensing. Much of this technology comes from the project’s 40 collaborators, including the likes of Autodesk, Bosch, NVIDIA and the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

Currently, the software is limited to a specialized tablet that comes as part of the Project Tango development kit. However, Google and Lenovo announced at CES in January 2016 that a Project Tango-enabled smartphone will be on the market later this year.

This prototype Project Tango smartphone was announced by Google and Lenovo at CES 2016. (Image courtesy of Lenovo.)
This prototype Project Tango smartphone was announced by Google and Lenovo at CES 2016. (Image courtesy of Lenovo.)


Augmented Reality on a Mobile Device

The Swiss software has a plethora of potential applications.

Currently, building photogrammetry is primarily performed by drones and other light aerial vehicles. The ability to map structures in 3D on a more portable medium like a mobile device would open the door for construction teams, surveyors or civil engineers to work quickly on a site.

The team's software uses a Google Project Tango tablet to generate 3D models of buildings. (Image courtesy of ETH Zurich/Thomas Schöps.)

The team's software uses a Google Project Tango tablet to generate 3D models of buildings. (Image courtesy of ETH Zurich/Thomas Schöps.)

“In [the] future, this could probably even be used to survey entire districts,” said Torsten Sattler, a postdoctoral student on the team.

The technology has the potential to be a game changer for the AEC industry. Instead of recording measurements and dimensions for reentry later, BIM teams would have the ability to scan for accurate dimensions and generate scale models without ever leaving the building site.

The software and Project Tango also have heavy implications for autonomous driving, which is likely the original intention of the endeavor. Cars using it would be able to “see” the edges of roads and other obstacles.

For more information about 3D mapping on mobile devices, check out the Project Tango website. The team at ETH Zurich also has a paper available to read here.

Recommended For You