I just spent five days in Austin at the SXSW Interactive Festival. There were no breakout social apps that took over the conference as in years past (like Twitter, Foursquare, or GroupMe), but there was one app that got almost zero buzz that blew me away. It has nothing to do with proximity-based social networks, photo-sharing, or finding a pedicab to the next SXSW marketing party. No, this is an app that can take real-world objects and turn them into photo-realistic 3D models.
The app is called Arqball Spin (iTunes link), and you can see it in action in the video above. Co-founder Jason Lawrence took my watch, placed it on a platter, then captured the rotating image on his iPhone using the app. In the time it took him to explain the technology—about a minute—he had a full 3D model of my watch that you can pinch, zoom, and rotate. (Check out the 3D model of my watch here, and this one of a spinning egglpant).
Arqball uses “computational photography” to create a 3D model of the rotating object placed on the platter, and then stitches images from different angles on top of it. The result is a digital object that looks real and even catches the light the same way my watch did on that platter. Game developers and animation studios create 3D objects like this all the time, but they don’t do it using their iPhones. That is why this is truly disruptive. It brings 3D modeling to the masses. You don’t need bulky 3D scanners or expensive desktop software, all the rendering happens in the cloud after the data is compressed to a 1MB file, and what you end up with is a 3D artifact called a “spin.”
The first application for Arqball Spin isn’t even for gaming or animation. It’s for commerce. Imagine every Etsy and eBay seller showing off their goods in 3D. The virtual item can be embedded on any site via an Arqball player. And it’s all HTML5—no Flash (so it works in iPad and iPhone browsers). This could be especially useful for luxury and highly-crafted items where the design is a key selling point. The drawback to online shopping is not being able to see or touch the product you are buying. Immersive technologies such as Arqball’s could help bridge that gap by giving people the opportunity to digitally manipulate and play with products before they buy.
I can see this becoming very appealing to high-end online retailers like Gilt who already spend a lot of time and money on lovingly photographing every luxury product on sale. Arqball’s platter, which it expects to sell for around $100, can only accommodate small objects not much larger than an Apple right now. But a professional photographer or retailer could build a bigger platter for larger objects. The technology works the same no matter the size of the object, as long as it rotates at a certain RPM.
Targeting online commerce is an obvious market entry strategy, but the app can be used by anybody. Lawrence sees it as a way to unleash “user-generated 3D content.” It seems like an obvious addition to any Maker’s tool belt. Over time, Arqball’s database of 3D objects could become increasingly valuable.
Lawrence and his co-founder Abhi Shelat are computer science professors from the University of Virginia. The company is completely bootstrapped and is based on technology they developed themselves. The app is free, and you get 5 “spins” that you can share. In the next few days, Arqball will introduced tiered pricing plans for users who want to share more spins.