About a year ago, CPI Corp., the king of the portrait studios, with storefronts inside Sears, Wal-Mart, and Toys R Us stores, closed its 2000-plus U.S. outlets. I was sad to see it go—for more than a decade, I dragged my kids over to one of those studios for an annual portrait. Now, in an era of cameras in every gadget, like most families, we moved from portraits to selfies, from framed photos to Facebook posts, and left the portrait studio behind.
But CPI may have given up just a bit too soon. Because the portrait studio may be about to come back, thanks to sophisticated scanning technology that’s coming down in price, and 3-D printers that are getting better and better at creating realistic full color objects.
3-D portraiture is “where photography was at the end of the 19th century, says Anna Zevelyov, director of business development for the Artec Group, a company headquartered in Luxembourg. Artec wants to own the scanning side of the 3-D portrait studio; it’s happy to cede the 3-D printer business to someone else.
The trend of what is coming to be called the 3-D selfie—even though there is no way most people can create one themselves—is kicking off in Asia and moving into Europe, Zevelyov reported. The typical entrepreneur in this nascent market has cobbled together some kind of scanning system (often just racks of cameras), bought a 3-D printer, and opened up a 3-D photo studio. And the Smithsonian Institution recently created a 3-D portrait of President Obama (using the Light Stage at the University of Southern California, a resource not available to the average person).
Zevelyov thinks there’s a market for a more turnkey system that does a really good job of scanning people. And that’s what she says Artec has. Its handheld scanner, which is not all that much bigger than a studio photographer’s camera, actually contains two cameras (one color, one black and white) and a rack of LEDs. The LEDs project patterns onto the subject—a scanning technique known as structured light. Right now, the cameras just collect the data, at 16 frames per second, and send it to a PC for processing; eventually Artec would like to bring the processing on board.
Artec says its gadget does a much better job of scanning people than comparable high-end scanners; it uses LEDs instead of lasers, for one, so it is eye-safe. And because the company came to this business out of face recognition, its scanning process moves quickly enough for an impatient human and the company has algorithms that can correct the scanned image to account for motion. Coming soon is a scanning booth that would take the photographer—scanographer?—out of the equation; that setup was recently tested at a supermarket in Manchester, England.
Artec doesn’t plan on opening up a photo studio in every large department store. Instead, it wants to sell scanners to other companies interested in taking on that challenge. The company sells the scanner for under US $20,000. (That may sound like a lot, but it’s far less than the cost of industrial scanners.) But Artec did open one 3-D photo studio earlier this year—on University Ave. in downtown Palo Alto—in order to attract the attention of engineers and high-tech thought leaders who might be inspired to come up with as-yet-unheard of applications for handheld 3-D scanning. (It’s already been used to record footprints and waste in a search for Bigfoot.) The company says it’s also using the location to test out the viability of the 3-D photo studio concept. Artec reports that, in addition to planned visits, with families dressing up and making an event of it, the shop gets a lot of early evening impulse traffic, as people on their way to dinner decide to stop in for a portrait.
Check out my scanning experience in the video below.
Again, as with the early days of photography, the image doesn’t pop right out of the camera. But according to Zevelyov, people are fine with coming back to pick up their 3-D portrait later. The scan costs $149 for a monochrome bust and $199 for a full-color, full-body scan; the resulting figurines go for $39 and up, depending on size. That’s priced less like the old photo studio in the mall and more like the high-end commercial photographer, but, as Zevelyov says, it’s early days.
So far, besides standard portraits, Artec’s 3-D studio has scanned couples to create wedding cake toppers and Army officers wanting to leave a model behind for their families. Zevelyov thinks 3-D portraits will quickly become as typical for families with young children as was my family’s annual visit to a Sears Portrait Studio. And the portrait ornaments that some hang on Christmas trees will be a lot more impressive.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.