Thursday, July 24, 2008

Software Review: Strata Foto 3D 1.5

Written by T. Michael Testi

Strata Foto 3D 1.5 is the part of the Strata 3D product line that lets users load a series of masked pictures into the Foto 3D interface and generate a real-time 3D object. This object can then be exported VRML, to 3DS, to a layer in Photoshop CS3 Extended, or used in one of Strata's other 3D products. The goal of Foto 3D is to allow a 3D model to be created quickly and inexpensively while requiring few technical skills and no expensive hardware.

To use Foto 3D correctly the primary things that you need are a camera that takes JPG or TIFF images, a printer that is capable of printing out the special calibration mats that you need - a decent laserjet or inkjet printer should do fine - a tripod, a solid background that is different from what you are going to model, and an evenly lit space.

Foto 3DThe first thing that you will want to do is calibrate your camera lens. Most cameras have some distortion that is not really noticeable when looking at a single image, but when you are trying to isolate, mask, and match up a series of images at different angles, it becomes more important. To calibrate the lens, you print a grid of dots onto a plain white sheet of paper. Secure the paper on a piece of card stock and take several pictures of it with the lens you will be using; more details are in the manual. You then load the images for Foto 3D to adjust.

Next thing to do is to print out a calibration mat — a specially designed printed pattern of dots that needs to be placed under the object when it is photographed. It needs to be appropriate to the size of your object and this mat allows Foto 3D to determine the exact positioning of the camera relative to the object. This can be a single page or multiple pages in size.

Now that you have everything in place, you set up your tripod-mounted camera; you might get away with not having a tripod if you have someone moving the model, but I would personally not want to try it this way. You will need to take at least 15 images from an angle that is low enough to take frontal shots, yet high enough to capture the calibration mat. You then take another four or so from higher up, and one from a top angle. If you want to take more images that is better; these are really just guidelines for the minimum to get a quality image. On my image, I moved one set of dots Foto 3Dto the left for each of the first group of shots, then four or five from higher up, and finally the top shots.

Next you load the images to the computer with Foto 3D and create a new project and load the images. At this point you will know if you calibrated your lens properly because your images will be properly masked or not. If it is properly masked, your object will be the only thing that is not transparent. If not you will see the masking occur in the wrong places and things will look screwy. At that point you will have the choice to start over, or handle the masking by hand. Once masked, you can fine tune the images.

From here you generate your wireframe which essentially puts together all of the images into a wire mold of your object. While you get options here for adjustment, keep in mind that there are trade-offs and while it may seem cool to add a lot of polygons, some where down the line it may become more costly in terms of memory and size relative to the benefits received.

Next you will optimize your surface which will make your object look like a soap carving; just a lump that sort of has the shape of your object. Finally, you texturize the model and that is what makes it look like your live object.

So what features does Strata Foto 3D bring?

• Automated Masking – With the proper backdrop and calibration of your lens, Foto 3D identifies your background and does the masking automatically. It takes the guesswork and tedium out of hand masking.

• Surface Optimization – uses the profile of your shape in each photo and generates a surface mesh. The more photos the more accurate your surface mesh. These make for smoother corners and edges.

• Auto Texture Creation – uses the same photos to Foto 3Dgenerate a photorealistic UV map for your object and uses that to automatically create a photo-realistic texture on your object.

• Interactive Mesh Decimation – lets you determine the number of polygons to use to create your object. You may want more if you are using the model in a 3D rendering package such as Strata 3D CX you may want higher quality and thus more polygons. If you want smaller size for downloading on the web, then you can opt for fewer polygons.

So what is new in Strata Foto 3D 1.5?

• Create 3D models from images in Photoshop CS3 Extended – by using the included script to combine your product shots into one document for easy masking. You can send the all of the images to Foto 3D, create the model and texture and the return it back to Photoshop.

• Export real-time 3D models directly to Photoshop – and finish the job there. The Foto 3D also work seamlessly with the Strata other Photoshop CS3 workflow tools such as Live 3D and Strata 3D.

Foto 3DStrata Foto 3D is available from Strata at $495 USD for the download version and $99 USD for the upgrade from 1.0. There is a Photoshop plug-in version called Strata Foto 3D[in] available as well for $149 USD and the differences can be found on this matrix.

What did I think of Strata Foto 3D? It takes a little bit to get everything set up the first time, with calibration and all, and to get the workflow correct, but once that was done, it was really very easy to use and get good results.

Strata Foto 3D will be of great benefit to anyone who needs to put fully textured, photo realistic objects into illustrations, video, games or any number of virtual environments. The fact that outside of the product, a camera, and a tripod, the ability to generate a 3D model with this much ease makes it a must have application that I can highly recommend.

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