3D Geologic Models Created with Photofly

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that if there’s one thing I love, it’s discovering new computer based visualization tools that can be applied to geology and geoscience education. Beyond the basic digital camera, one of my first forays into this realm was creating QTVR panoramas. Not long after that I got deeply interested in developing geologic applications for Google Earth. Then, in 2007 this line of inquiry led me to GigaPans. I’ve dabbled in other technologies along the way as well, one of which – Microsoft’s Photosynth – didn’t result in any blog posts here but got me thinking about photogrammetry and using photography to create 3D models. Well, recently I’ve discovered a brand new technology – Project Photofly from Autodesk Labs – that allows me to realize the dream that Photosynth first hinted at.

The basic idea behind Photofly is not so hard to comprehend. By taking a bunch of photos of an object from different orientations, a computer program can identify unique points on the surface of the object and provided there’s sufficient overlap and coverage it can use photogrammetry to reconstruct the relative positions from which the photographs were taken and then from this information it can generate a 3D mesh of points that model the object and then it can project the images onto that model to create a photorealistic rendering of the model in 3D that can them be manipulated in a computer graphics program. Simple, eh?

So what do the results look like? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are three examples:

This was the first Photofly model I created. It is a hand sample of a fold in the Vishnu Schist.

This is my favorite model so far. I added narration to the video so you can listen to the explanation while you watch.

This last flythru is of a considerably larger scale object – Castle Rock in Gove County, Kansas. Below is a GigaPan of Castle Rock, for comparison.


I would love to be able to embed the models directly in a website so one could manipulate them independently or at least offer a file that one could download so that one could manipulate it in the Photofly viewer software, but I haven’t figured out how to do this effectively yet. If you’d like to try out Photofly for yourself, it’s a free download (Windows only) from the Project Photofly website. The 3D model creation is done in the cloud after you upload a set of photos. You can edit the resulting model and manipulate it in 3D in the desktop software. You can also generate movies that can be uploaded to YouTube or your choice of web based video platforms. There is supposed to be a way to get these 3D models into an app on a smartphone, but I haven’t figured out how to do this yet either. The cloud based service for creating these is expected to be free through the end of 2012 – no promises beyond that.

I’m very excited to think of all the geologic features that would benefit from being visualized in 3D. What would you like to see me model next?