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Democratizing reality capture, part 1: Can a total beginner learn 3D laser scanning?

By Christopher Curley


Welcome to the first part in a series wherein a newbie to reality capture tests the BLK series from front to back to see just how possible it is for someone with no prior knowledge to put Leica Geosystems' hardware and software workflows to the test.

cartoon man holding a BLK360 G1Hi. My name is Chris Curley, and I’m a copywriter at Leica Geosystems. I have a background in journalism and brand storytelling, and you’ll notice that neither of those includes expertise in laser scanning, reality capture, or surveying.

In fact, here's a brief list of terms and how I would have defined them before I joined Leica Geosystems in March 2022:

Laser scanner: A device that digitizes documents into my computer.

Reality capture device: An Oculus Rift?

Point cloud: I'm not sure, but it sounds meteorologically threatening.

(Cue the knowing chuckles from our audience of experienced surveyors and reality capture professionals.)

While I'm a pretty big geek, when I started this job, my familiarity with the world of architecture, engineering, and construction – where Leica's sensors are mainstays – didn't extend much further than knowing what CAD stood for.

But as we were gearing up to launch the new Leica BLK360 and I was working on a retrospective about the BLK series, I came across a phrase I'd seen and heard a few times before – that the BLK series of sensors was designed to help "democratize reality capture,." meaning that cost and user-friendliness meant that even someone like myself with no prior experience could pick up a scanner and go.

Oh, really?

I suggested putting that notion to the test.

Could a nerdy guy with zero prior experience really use these devices correctly without messing it up?

Let's find out.

Hurricane 360

The team decided that if I was going to learn to scan, I ought to start from the beginning with the Leica BLK360 G1 and that the best place to start was my house.

This approach had functional appeal. I live in New Orleans, which has faced more than its fair share of destructive weather, and we were right in the height of hurricane season when the G1 arrived. One of the city's hurricane preparedness recommendations is photographing your property before a storm for insurance purposes. Many insurers also recommend you take photos or video of the interior of your home to record both the status of the structure and your belongings should the worst happen.

Here was a unique opportunity not only to do my diligence for storm season but also to record a millimeter-accurate digital twin of my home inside and out. I'm sure few insurance appraisers would have ever seen anything quite like it.

Setting up my first scans

In truth, I had wanted to start with the BLK360 G1 anyway.BLK360 with accessories and mission bag

Having just launched the new Leica BLK360 with its slimmer profile, speedier capture, and automatic registration in the field, it would have been tempting to jump straight to the latest and greatest. But I felt it was only fair to step back in time to the heady days of 2016 when the first BLK360 changed the scanning landscape. And to learn how to align scans myself. (There is such a thing as too easy).

I won't belabor my first impressions of a six-year-old product. Still, it was a genuine pleasure to unbox my Mission Bag, set up the tripod for the first time, charge the G1's batteries and remove the sleek black sensor from its protective case, feeling a little like a clumsy but nonetheless highly trained IMF agent.

I'd seen pictures and videos and written about the device many times, but watching the scanner boot up from flashing yellow to solid green gave me a little thrill nonetheless. Like a lot of award-winning designs for tech, the little guy has personality.

Here's where my enthusiasm hit a brief pause, as I had to register for Cyclone Cloud to use Cyclone FIELD 360 and go through the setup processes to connect the scanner to my iPhone, but soon my G1 was talking to my phone, and vice-versa, and I was off to the races.

Expectations versus reality: Scanning and aligning in the field

Scanning itself was a breeze.

Thanks to FIELD 360's live previews of the scans I had just taken, it was easy to see where my scan shadows were and where my subsequent setups should be. And the "pre-align" feature from one scan to the next was seamless. Pinching and rotating the alignment of scans on my smartphone screen where I didn't have the ability to pre-align was almost as easy. I could feel a deeper understanding of how our tech works snapping into place, and I could tell I benefited from years of software refinement to get there.

But scanning became like a quest. I did my house in two jobs, interior, and exterior, over the course of several days (this would become a small nightmare later when I needed to clean my scans), hiding my toddler between interior scans and scanning the exterior while she was at daycare.

Scanning outside, my iPhone shut down in the New Orleans heat while the BLK360 G1 kept trucking. Now, I understand why many professionals often opt to use push-button scanning without the app. It saves considerable time on the job site, even if it means spending extra time downloading your scans later.

My only regret is being unable to capture the entirety of my roof. While I did climb a ladder up and take two scans, there was nowhere suitable to sight the highest gables in a tight urban environment. I suddenly found myself yearning for a Leica BLK2FLY.

Scanning the interior and exterior of a house with the BLK360 G1

Registering with REGISTER 360 PLUS

Remember the slogan for that old game, Othello? "A minute to learn. A lifetime to master"?

That's a little how I felt once I got the scans off my G1 and into Leica's software workflow, Cyclone REGISTER 360 PLUS (BLK Edition).

I was reminded of how, despite the immense technology and great skill involved in shooting a movie, many directors say that films are truly "made" in the editing bay.

Similarly, it was clear how scanning in the field was just the first step in the reality capture journey, and it's what people do with their point clouds after cleaning them and getting them ready to publish where the data makes the next leap.

At first, REGISTER 360 PLUS seemed daunting. But daunting in the same way high-powered software like Adobe Suite is daunting. Or how AutoCAD must be daunting.

It's here that I adopted what would become my mantra over the next few weeks: TGFAF.

That's Thank God for Andy Fontana.

Leica Geosystems' BLK Technical Specialist is well-known for his videos about BLK products and his 45-minute tutorial on how to combine and clean scans with REGISTER 360 PLUS was indispensable. A life raft in uncertain waters.

Before long, I found myself actually enjoying aligning and cleaning scans. I made some mistakes and figured out how to fix them. Rewound the videos and watched them again to get it right. And so: TGFAF. Thanks Andy.

Democracy now

I had now merged two jobs, with nearly 20 setups apiece. I'd aligned them, cleaned the point clouds, registered them, and even published them in REGISTER 360 PLUS. So, had I proven our claims to making reality capture accessible?

Yes, though in the same way that anyone can snap a photo, but—it still takes time to become a professional photographer.

I scanned my house, and as a complete newcomer, I was able to perform reality capture with little fuss, other than having to learn the basics of the hardware and software. But it wasn’t perfect. And when I consider the pros that do this for a living and the time it takes them to master their workflows, it gave me a much greater appreciation for the work they do to get fine measurements, align them properly, and process the data into applications that work for them and their clients.

But at the end of the day, I was able to create a perfectly useful and functional digital twin with just the scanner, software, and some YouTube tutorials.

For a total newbie, I’d say that’s democracy now for reality capture

Now, let's see what else I can do.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where Chris explores and scans an offbeat New Orleans landmark in the city’s Central Business District.

Disclaimer: This article features the Leica BLK360 G1. Explore the expanded capabilities of the latest BLK360 model here.


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