If you’ve ever wanted to model an actual physical object in 3D then this software may be extremely useful to you. AutoDesk 123D Catch is free software that can process a group of photographs taken of an object, digitally model it in 3D, and then export the result as a 3D object (in DWX, FBX, RGI, OBJ, IPM and LASS formats). Autodesk also provides fabrication tools and services, whereby you could upload your project and print your object in 3D or create a physical laser cut object (for a fee, of course).
Note that this software has a significant ONLINE component; your images have to be uploaded and processed in the cloud, and the end result downloaded afterwards or emailed back to you. And although the modeling is done mostly automatically, it is nonetheless possible to refine the results by manually connecting unidentified images to the project.
At first this software seemed very similar to Microsoft Photosynth, which also takes a patchwork of photos and connects them into a larger scene, but there is a difference: AutoDesk 123D Catch produces a modeled 3D object as output, that you can use with most 3D modeling software and incorporate into other projects.
How to use this software (a rudimentary guide):
Step 1: find an object and snap pictures from every angle. Go around the object a couple of times at different elevations. Avoid glassy objects or objects with transparencies or reflections. Click here for some tutorials, where you can find tips on what makes good photo-taking practice.
Step 2: run the software, then choose ‘Create a new Photo Scene’ and point it to the folder with all of your images inside it. The program will take some time uploading all of your images to the server for processing (it doesn’t process locally). Be patient. You can choose to either wait for it to finish, or be notified by email. I typically chose email notification myself.
Step 3: once processing is done, you can download the end result as a .3dp file (a very small file). Run it, and the program will open to display your 3D project. It can take some time to open, depending on your project and machine specs. At this point you can evaluate the quality of your project, play with it (pan, zoom in and out, etc.) You can also use a battery of other functions, setting reference points, selecting and deleting elements, viewing as mesh, etc.
Step 4: Unrecognized images. Should there be any, you can incorporate these into your project by manually identifying common points. Typically, 4 points in common have to be identified in two other images, before the ENTIRE project is re-uploaded to the server and re-processed. My experience in this is that adding a single image is worth it, as my project was significantly better when I did so. See the screenshot below for an illustration of this process.
Step 5: lastly, you can export to a 3D object for use with other programs, or create a video if your graphics card is up for it. Note that your project is perpetually synced online.
Here’s a video of Autodesk 123D Catch in action:
The verdict: I had a lot of fun playing with this software, and the results were, on the whole, quite good for the amount of effort I put into it.
However, I do not do 3D modeling in general, and cannot speak to how useful this kind of software may be for people who do this seriously, but I suspect the online component, which may be acceptable for amateurs like myself, would probably be quite annoying for more serious users. There’s also the question of reliability, whether you might expect long delays if and when a lot of people start using the online service.
On the other hand, to make an argument for the online component: I used this software on a rather low spec laptop, which actually had a hard time in simply viewing/rendering one of the more complicated objects I created, and would have doubtlessly been unable to locally process the images in the first place.
Also, it seems that this software would be served well by adding an easy way to export to AutoCad, as while this seems possible, it apparently has to go through a somewhat surreptitious route (see this forum entry).
One of the most intriguing things that need to be mentioned is the physical fabrication services that are offered by Autodesk, letting you create your objects that can be shipped back to your (not free, of course, but very exciting). They offer free software (Autodesk 123D) to help you get your project from model to 3D print.
[Thanks go to user Panzer for letting us know about this software].
Version tested: 18.104.22.168 beta
Compatibility: Windows 7 (32-bit and 64-bit), Windows XP Service Pack 3 or higher (32-bit and 64-bit). 1 Gig RAM, Intel Core 2Duo processor, and an OpenGL compatible video card (OpenGL version 1.3 recommended) with 256MB or more memory. Requires MS visual C++ libraries (note: it will download these for you if needed). Coming soon to: iPad.
Also requires an internet connection, with a purely web-based version to be available soon.
Go to the program page to download the latest version (~61 megs). You will need to create an account using a valid email address.