From 3D characters in video games to detailed scans of the human ear, Infrared or “Structured Light” 3D scanning has numerous applications. Using projected light and a camera system to “shoot light on the surface of any object,” Infrared scanners can recreate an object’s surface geometry. The most successful commercial 3D scanners are the one’s that do this with incredible speed and precision. The Artec Space Spider, which uses blue LED structured light technology, is a perfect example.

High-Res Infrared 3D Scanner

When there’s a breakthrough in 3D scanning technology, the world takes notice. According to a recent press release from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering, researchers have designed a super precise 3D scanner with a resolution of one million pixels. Fraunhofer IOF’s new measuring technology is described as working similarly to human vision in that instead of eyes, there are two infrared cameras, Stefan Heist from the Fraunhofer IOF explains.

“In order to detect the object, we project aperiodic patterns onto the surface using a specially developed near-infrared projector.”

Structured Light 3D Scanning

To record as many measuring points as possible by the two infrared cameras, a sequence of different patterns is projected and within a few milliseconds, an intuitive software program calculates the 3D data from the images. The distortions in the “line of light” are then used to recreate the object’s surface geometry. Since Fraunhofer’s scanner uses infrared rays, which are invisible to the naked eye, the scanner measures the object’s surface invisibly and with numerous measuring points, does this with revolutionary precision.

To put the technology in perspective: Fraunhofer’s scanner is capable of producing 36 high-res 3D color images of 1,000 x 1,000 pixels per second. According to the press release, an old TV tube showed 25 images per second with each image being doubled in order to reduce the disturbing flicker. “Although there are scanners that are faster, they render 3D images with poorer resolution,” said Dr. Peter Kühmstedt, head of the Fraunhofer research project. “If on the hand, the scanners are more accurate, they tend to be much slower. Moreover, most scanners work in the visible range and the projections of the patterns may even interfere or have disturbing glare effects.”

Widespread Application

The real magic of Fraunhofer’s scanner is the fact that the measurements go completely unnoticed and at the same time, it creates incredible high-res 3D images. The sky is the limit for the researchers’ irritation-free 3D scanner which means only one thing: widespread application across many sectors including healthcare, education, robotics, security, etc. For example, in medical rehabilitation scenarios, the optical system could “indicate whether the patient performs exercises correctly or incorrectly,” Kühmstedt said.

Still, in its prototype phase, researchers foresee their infrared scanner being used alongside machine learning technology – helping robots scan their human companions for gesture and facial recognition. Another possible is security technology – a quick undetectable infrared scan matching biometric body characteristic can be quite useful. I know of two Silicon Valley companies (Knightscope and Cobalt Robotics) that would love to integrate state-of-the-art scanning technology into their smart security guards.