Virtual environments such as Second Life, Mycosm and VastPark have introduced the general population of internet users to the concepts of online three-dimensional worlds and objects, but most of us don't really have the skills to do much more than wander around and talk to people.
Now Adelaide-based start-up Punchcard is hoping to bring 3D modelling skills to the masses with VideoTrace. Managing director Anton van den Hengel says the big advantage of VideoTrace over other 3D modelling tools is its ability to create 3D models from 2D video images without any real training of the user.
Instead, the user traces the outline of the object over one or more frames of the video footage, and the software uses computer vision techniques to extract all of the 3D information out of the 2D images. "We were just hoping to make modelling easier, but at the time it became clear that we could make it easy enough that ordinary people could generate 3D models," he says.
VideoTrace is certainly not the only product that can do what it does, and it competes with commercial software such as PhotoModeler and Autodesk's ImageModeler. However, van den Hengel says that neither product is designed for ordinary people.
"They are very powerful tools that do a great job, if you are willing to put in the yards to learn a very complicated interface and put in all the information yourself," he says. "The difference with VideoTrace is that the interface is very simple, and that's because we've automated all of the image analysis."
VideoTrace also competes with Google's SketchUp, but van den Hengel believes it is much easier to use, particularly if the user is modelling something real, such as creating an accurate representation of their own house using texture maps.
VideoTrace is currently available in a closed beta from Punchcard's website. Van den Hengel hopes to have it available for general release by the end of the year, both as a free version for the public, and a paid version for professional designers. This is the same model that he says makes SketchUp profitable today.
The technology emerged from the Australian Centre for Visual Technologies, which conducts research into image processing and computer graphics at the University of Adelaide, and was created with the help of an AIC Discovery grant. More recently it received a COMET grant to further its commercialisation.
The technology is patent-protected, but van den Hengle is in a race to bring it to market before Google improves SketchUp, or Microsoft releases its own efforts in consumer 3D modelling. It has already taken two years to spin VideoTrace out of the university and into its own company, and further delays could see it passed by in the market.
Working in VideoTrace's favour, however, is strong public interest. Google Earth and Second Life have raised the public's awareness of 3D environments and modelling, and Australia has a strong 3D development community already, thanks to local companies ExitReality, VastPark and Mycosm. Van den Hengel says when the software was first published to the university's website it was crashed by the demand for downloads, while his own email was flooded by messages of interest.
He is continuing to get strong interest from sectors including games developers, architects, defence and even people associated with forensic reconstruction. Right now what he is looking for is a management team to continue commercialisation of the technology, leading towards a planned capital raising.
The biggest barrier seems to be finding the skills necessary to get the software ready for general consumption, and then propagated out to enough users quickly enough to stake a place in the market. It's a very big task.
At the same time, there seems to be growing interest in more immersive web interfaces and 3D modelling. If Punchcard gets its act together quickly, it has a good chance of creating a very popular product.
bootstrappr opinion: BOOM