There is no doubt that transitioning to a wholly 3D workflow is difficult but necessary, and there is no place better to learn than SPAR International. All the vendors have their best products on display and the qualified personnel to do hands on demonstrations and short training sessions. Seeing these technologies firsthand delivers a sense of reality that an article can’t convey.

The vendors are almost entirely laser scanning hardware, with some photogrammetry systems and software vendors here and there. The sense that hardware has far surpassed software is hard to shake since just about everyone you talk to mentions the phrase “we use X for processing with the codes our in-house programmers create.” Still, software is coming along, with some impressive developments being launched at the show.

On Monday, the conference opened with a trio of speakers talking about how the ever-present 3D scanning technology can be used. Dr. Phil Manning started the keynote address with an intellectual, fascinating and often humorous presentation on his use of scanning in fossil recovery and study. He uses scanners to document the large areas they search for fossils and the bones themselves, and he also uses a one-of-a-kind x-ray scanner to document the microscopic, millennia-old chemical makeup of a fossil.

The second speaker was Abe Riechental, CEO of 3D systems, a 3D printing company. With the $1,200 consumer model whirring away while he spoke, Riechental covered how his company uses the 3D datasets from medical offices to 3D-modeling-obsessed children to build databases that his company’s products can replicate. On display was a full, working electric guitar and a chess piece created during the presentation.

The keynote ended with ESRI’s director of imagery, Lawrie Jordan talking about Esri’s move from 2D desktop-based software to 3D/4D cloud based systems. His major points were the democratization of ESRI products, where instead of a few experts creating data, the low cost and ease of use for online versions would enable thousands or millions of contributors to create their own local data to grow a larger, global database.

During the rest of the day, I sat in on sessions that addressed the competition and cooperation between LiDAR and digital photogrammetry. Essentially the end result of both processes is a point cloud that every software can use. The major differences between them are precision and usability. LiDAR holds the crown for consistency so is great for measuring when high precision is required like in construction or ALTA surveys. Photogrammetry relies on ambient light and requires different positions between shots so the data is more “fuzzy” than LiDAR but still very usable. For things like asset management and 3D modeling for GIS applications, it’s hard to beat being able to use a smartphone’s camera video feature to create a point cloud that is comparable to LiDAR. Several companies at the SPAR International conference have fully mobile, 360 degree, 3D photo data capture hardware that they process and return a beautiful model that integrates well into GIS software.

To say there is still much to cover is an understatement. What 3D technology interests you? Please post your comments below.