Case Study
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 5: (Sep/Oct 2015)

Case Study

Every president hopes to be viewed as a multi-faceted, well-rounded, three-dimensional individual. If that’s the case, then President Obama is in terrific shape.

Barack Obama became the first president to have a bust created using 3D scanning and printing technology.

Last year’s portrait sitting was handled by the Smithsonian Institution in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), which used a mobile version of its Light Stage system. It contained an array of 50 custom-built LED lights and 14 cameras from the lab’s Light Stage X system: eight high-speed, high-resolution cameras and six wider angle cameras. The setup captured every detail of the “sitting president” in approximately one second. 

According to Paul Debevec, associate director of graphics research at USC ICT, the group recorded the highest resolution digital model ever made of a head of state. 

“The inspiration for the project comes from the Lincoln Life Mask in our National Portrait Gallery,” says Gunter Waibel, director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office. The life mask process, which also resulted in a lifelike sculpture of the 16th president, was created by adding layers of plaster to Lincoln’s face. The recent digital technique, however, was faster and cleaner. 

Says Waibel, “Seeing that [life mask] made us think, What would happen if we could actually do that with a sitting president using modern-day technologies and tools, to create a similarly authentic experience that connects us to history, that connects us to a moment in time and to a person’s likeness?”

As Debevec explains, President Obama was illuminated by about 10 different lighting conditions that changed the polarization and the directionality of the light. This provided the team with all the information it needed to understand the shape of the president’s face (including diffuse, specular, and surface normal maps).  

In addition to the Light Stage facial scans, team members at the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office used handheld, high-resolution, 3D scanners and traditional SLR cameras to acquire peripheral 3D information, such as clothing and hair.

Autodesk processed the data from these two distinct reality-capture input methods and produced a single, high-resolution 3D model that could be fed into a 3D printer or viewed in a browser through the Smithsonian’s X 3D Explorer. (The X 3D technology is used to create digital versions of various collections and objects at the Smithsonian, to make them accessible to researchers.) 

Altogether, multiple scans and 50-plus photos were generated for the model. “Working with the Smithsonian to create 3D models of President Obama was a historic moment, and we were honored to be a part of it,” says Brian Mathews, vice president and CTO of the Reality Solutions group at Autodesk. 

Autodesk served as an expert advisor and contributed reality--computing technology, including Memento, a solution for turning scans into high-quality 3D models. A digital artist used Autodesk’s Maya and Mudbox tools to frame the subject on a historically relevant plinth, to fix errors introduced in the scanning process and to render high-resolution still images and animations. The models were output using 3D Systems’ printers.

According to Adam Metallow, 3D digitization program officer at the Smithsonian, the bust is not an artist’s likeness or interpretation, but rather an accurate depiction. “This is actually millions upon millions of measurements that we can now 3D print and make something that’s never been done before.”

In fact, this is the first time that new technology was introduced to create a portrait of a sitting president for the National Portrait Gallery, where, since the start of the year, the 3D printed bust has officially become part of this famed collection.