How To Make a 3D Capture with Your Phone and 123D Catch

Make a 3d capture

When’s the last time you did something with your smartphone that made you go “wow”? We’re are sort of used to them now and the magic has faded a bit, if I have to be honest. What if I told you that your humble little phone is actually a sophisticated 3D scan maker that can make a 3D capture?

We Have the Tools to Make a 3D Capture

We’re always reading about the power of the cloud and how great smartphone hardware is, but if all you’re doing is Instagram selfies you’d never know it.

So it’s a good thing AutoDesk is experimenting with cool things a phone can do. This little free app called 123D Catch is part of their larger app family.

How it works is equal parts common sense and witchcraft. Seriously, I know how it works in practice, but I have no idea how it really works. Boy does it work, though!

The idea is that you take a whole bunch of photos of an object, moving in a circle all around it. Those photos are sent to the cloud back at AutoDesk. The computers there invoke the black magic needed to complete the spell and you make a 3D capture.

Here’s their marketing bumf to show you what I mean:


OK, actually it’s not magic. It’s all mathematic, which to me is basically the same thing. The software uses methods from the field of photogrammetry to figure out the size and shape of a thing based on photos of it.

There are a lot of fancy professional uses for this technology, but for us regular schmoes it’s fun and even useful.

For example, instead of posting a photo of something you made you can make a 3D capture and share it online. You can make a fly-around video of an object and put it on YouTube.

The most exciting use has to be 3D printing. After you make a 3D capture, you can clean up your 3D capture with another free program called Meshmixer and then export it to your 3D printer. The future is now people.

Always Prepared

Before you can start making your own 3D models, you have to head to your app store and grab the software. While you’re at it, create an account with AutoDesk if you don’t already have one.

The Apple app is here and the Android one is here. Believe it or not, even Windows Phone users are in luck.

Fell free to have a look through the gallery of user-submitted models. There are some really amazing models there. It just goes to show what’s possible!

Make a 3d capture

Once you have the software up and running, you have to prepare your object for scanning.

The most important thing is lighting. Your object has to be lit fairly well from all angles.

It’s also important that the object is not so big that you can’t take pictures of its top from all angles. Otherwise, the model will have holes in it. You don’t want the hole, believe me.

If it’s something outside that you can’t move you may want to wait until a time of day when lighting is ideal.

It can also help to have four sticky notes with unique shapes drawn on them stuck around the object at 90-degree intervals. This can help the software figure out where it’s looking from in each photo.

Start ‘er Up

To start making your 3D capture, tap the little plus sign at the top right of the “featured” page of the app. Now tap on “start a new capture”.

Make a 3d capture

Here I’m going to make a model of one of an action figures.

Shutterbug It

The app has a built-in guide to help you make sure that all the necessary photos get taken. The little wheel in the left-hand corner of the screen will light up each segment that’s complete.

Make a 3d capture

Even though the app helps you out, you should still take the photos properly.

Try to imagine that your phone is connected to the object by an invisible string as you walk around it. In other words, try to walk a perfect circle with the object in the exact middle. This will make the results better.

Try to make sure that each photo is in focus and framed well before taking it.

Remember that the software does not play well with things that are either transparent or very reflective.

Send It Up

Once you have all the needed photos ready to go and have reviewed them for any major mistakes, it’s time to send the lot off into the cloud.

Make a 3d captureNow all you can do is stare at the progress bar, hoping that the big-brained computers at AutoDesk HQ will hurry it up. OK, I guess you could go do some other stuff, but my life is more boring than yours.

Once the process is done, you should have a shareable 3D model that you can also download and edit using other software.

Make a 3d capture

Upping Your Game

You may notice that the quality of the models you make with the app are not that great. It’s actually amazing that anything decent can be done with only between twenty and forty photos.

Professional software that does the same thing can make use of hundreds if not thousands of photos.

While we probably aren’t going to get access to that sort of software for free, AutoDesk does offer something a little more advanced.

The tools is called AutoDesk ReMake.There was a desktop version of 123D catch, but it was replaced with this cool piece of software.

The process is basically the same as with 123D Catch on smartphones, but you can use many more photos. You can also use a high-quality DSLR camera if you have one.

Keep in mind that if you try to make one of these very high-quality scans, the processing time can be extremely long.

Build It and They Will Come

Let’s recap what we’ve achieved:

  • We took a normal phone
  • Made like, 40 photos
  • Used black magic math to turn it into an actual 3D model

Just a few years ago it would have been impossible for the average person to create a 3D capture like this. Now, with just that little rectangle in your pocket, a whole new possibility has opened up.

Be sure to link to your own scans in the comments below. I’d love to see what you guys come up with when you make a 3D capture.


All Screenshots by Kees Friesland


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