3D Systems Sense review: a 3D scanner for the masses (almost)

If we've crossed paths in the past week, there's a pretty good chance I've scanned you. This extends well beyond the human race, into the realms of animal, vegetable, plush toy and fruit bowl. Some subjects were too small to be scanned, some too fidgety and, in the case of my attempted 3D selfie, not nearly flexible enough. Such issues were mere roadblocks in my strange one-man journey to 3D-scan the world. I may have a problem. I admit it. For starters, I'm not completely sure what I plan on doing with all these scans, but while such questions are entirely logical, they've yet to curb my enthusiasm for the device. Sense is one of those propositions that seems too good to be true: a user-friendly, (relatively) portable 3D scanner capable of capturing objects up to 10 feet by 10 feet, and at a fraction of the price of the competition.

If the product is indeed what 3D Systems claims, it could fill a major hole in the consumer 3D-printing market. In recent years, 3D-printing companies have largely focused on the printers themselves, which have gotten cheaper and easier to use. At the same time, the race to dominate the category has often caused companies to ignore the question of how those without extensive CAD experience can create 3D files in the first place. MakerBot unveiled its solution back at SXSW: the $1,400 Digitizer, a rotating, desktop scanning bed capable of capturing objects up to eight inches by eight inches. 3D Systems' Sense takes a wholly different approach: This is a $400 handheld scanner that can digitize an entire human being.

3D Systems Sense Review

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3D Systems

Sense

Pros

  • Relatively affordable
  • User-friendly software
  • Huge scanning area

Cons

  • Tethered by a cord
  • PC-only for now
  • Doesn't work well on small objects
Summary

The Sense is a capable and user-friendly 3D scanner at a great price. Still, it has a ways to go before it becomes a mainstream device.

Hardware

When the 3D Systems team gave us a sneak peek of the Sense a few weeks ago, we immediately compared it to a staple gun. It's a statement we stand by. The scanner looks vaguely menacing the first time you see it held up to a stranger's head. On closer inspection, there's nothing too frightening going on here. The rectangular handheld is covered in a gray soft-touch material with large, engraved Sense logos on either side. There's a grip in the center, surrounded by a glossy, translucent white plastic. Why the company didn't coat it in a soft-touch material, I'm not entirely sure -- that material tends to provide a solid, comfortable grip. Though, after some light use, the material had already begun wearing down on the corners, so that may well answer our question.

On the front, you'll find transparent plastic protecting two cameras and an IR sensor, a setup that will immediately evoke references to Microsoft's Kinect. Just below that is a small 3D Systems logo, so your subject will know exactly who built the Sense when it's pointed at his or her face. On the bottom is a port for attaching the Sense to a tripod -- to, say, mount above a rotating platform, should you want to take a more professional approach to scanning your objects than a quick-and-dirty hand-held approach. With a weight of less than one pound, though, it's plenty easy to hold for the amount of time it takes to scan someone -- or multiple someones, for that matter. The build quality is also reasonably solid, though the pieces of the scanner's face pop off fairly easily, perhaps for repair purposes. If you don't fiddle with them too much, this shouldn't be a problem.

This being a first-gen product, I can't say I'm surprised that the Sense is tethered via USB cord. That means you'll need to be plugged into a PC to use it. Though, as 3D Systems happily points out in the scanner's press material, it will also work with Windows 8 tablets. Further compatibility is coming down the road, but in the meantime, you're stuck with plugging into a desktop, lugging around a laptop in one hand or picking up a Surface. And be forewarned, the cord has the habit of getting in the way as you circle around your subject. Maybe the company will do away with the wire for version 2.0 and either relying on wireless transfer or building a memory card slot directly into the Sense -- though the addition of a battery would certainly add some weight to the device.

Software

It's worth reiterating that the software is PC-only at launch. In fact, if you plan on giving one of these as a gift to some lucky Mac user, there'll be a bit of a waiting period until they can use it. The OS X version should launch right around CES, in early January. No word yet on Android or iOS support, both of which will obviously be central to tablet compatibility. But while the 3D Systems team wasn't able to get additional compatibility out the door in time for the Sense's release, it clearly invested a lot of time in building the most user-friendly experience possible. And in that sense, it's mostly succeeded. A few software hiccups aside, if you're able to transfer photos from a digital camera to a computer, you should feel pretty confident in your abilities to get things going right out of the box. The UI, whose bright-blue theme matches the Windows 8 aesthetic, kicks things off with a series of idiot-proof questions.

Fire it up with the Sense plugged in (if you don't, you'll get a friendly nudge telling you what you've done wrong) and it'll start by asking you "What do you want to scan?" Below this are options for "Person" and "Object," along with some pretty basic symbols for the two, so even if you can't read, you should still be able to work your way through the process. Aside from these three things, the screen is otherwise empty. Tap "Person" and it'll ask whether you're planning to scan a head or a full body. Over on the object side of things, your options are small (books, laptops, soccer balls), medium (guitar, car tire, suitcase) and large (desk, motorcycle, sofa). Pick one of those side categories and you're ready to scan. Again, dead-simple. However, if you do accidentally tap the wrong option (all right, "idiot proof" may have been a bit harsh), there's no going back. You've either got to hope for the best or just close out of the software altogether.

Scanning

Like the software, the scanning experience is straightforward. Tap "Start to Scan" to, well, you know, and the software starts counting down from three. Seeing as how there are no physical buttons on the Sense, there may be a fair amount of juggling involved if you're holding a tablet in one hand and the scanner in the other. It's best to either set the tablet on a table to start the process or find a friend who'll hit go for you. The Sense is a consumer-facing offspring of the hand-held industrial 3D scanners like the ones a team of Smithsonian archivists is using to digitize a small portion of the museum's collection. As with those devices, the objective here is to essentially "paint" your subject, moving your hands to make sure the Sense's cameras have picked up all the information they need to form a full picture of the object. The software, thankfully, gives you a good picture of what you're getting as you go along, whiting out all of the areas the camera isn't picking up.

The amount of time you'll spend scanning something varies depending on the size and detail of the object, of course, but for the most part, the actual scanning process takes under a minute. If you've ever taken a panoramic photo on your smartphone, scanning will be old hat, with the software telling you whether you're too far or too close as you move around the subject. It's easy to see why 3D Systems demoed the device almost exclusively on people; the Sense really feels like a device built for human subjects. There's still a bit of a learning curve, and many of our initial attempts were choppy or incomplete, but I felt like an expert head scanner quickly enough. It's pretty easy to get the hang of larger objects too, though scanning anything you have to place on a surface will likely pick up part of the base in the image. But don't worry; you'll fix it in post.

Small objects are tough, though. And note how the company uses a basketball as one of the examples of small subjects -- that should give you a pretty good idea of the limitations here. When I tried to scan things less than, say, 10 inches tall, we ran into some issues. For starters, the scanner had trouble recognizing what, precisely, we were trying to scan.

Things didn't get much better once I actually started scanning. When the Sense loses its place, the software throws up a gray "Lost Tracking" screen. When that happens, it's your duty to line up the last scanned bit with what the camera is currently picking up. The process is a pain and, not surprisingly, the smaller the subject, the more irritating it is, as you've got to both line up the object and make sure the scanner is the same distance it was when you left off. More often than not, we found ourselves throwing in the towel out of frustration. MakerBot's Digitizer is definitely still the scanner of choice when it comes to capturing objects less than eight inches tall.

It probably goes without saying that you're going to need your subject staying as still as possible throughout the scanning process. In that sense, it feels a bit like those early cameras -- if the person you're scanning moves a little, it could throw the tracking off and wreck your shot (and, since there's no back button, force you to restart the app). That's all well and good for inanimate objects and most grown-up humans, but pets, not surprisingly, are another story. I got frustratingly close to digitizing my rabbit, but she inevitably fidgeted before I'd gotten a full enough image for a complete scan. Unless your pet is a deep sleeper, impeccably trained or recently took a trip to the taxidermist, chances are pretty good that you're not going to get a great scan.

Seeing as how Sense doesn't know precisely what you're looking to scan, it also doesn't know when to stop scanning. Once you think you've got enough, hit the Next button (with a little of the aforementioned juggling, of course) and the software will start processing the data you've collected.

Post-production

Processing a mid-size image on the Surface Pro 2 took roughly a minute and a half. It can feel like a long time when you're waiting to find out if your image actually took, but that said, it's not long to wait for a tablet to construct a three-dimensional image. Once that's completed, you'll see the fruits of your efforts on a white background. Here you'll get the option to crop the image. If your scan picked up any unwelcome pieces of a table the subject was sitting on, you can remove it here, too. You can't, however, zoom in and out or rotate the image from this screen, so I'd advise skipping straight to the next page instead.

The Edit page features options for erasing artifacts and solidifying. Better yet, you can actually rotate the shot here, which will give you a much better idea of how complete your image is. For a well-scanned image, this may well be the most rewarding moment aside from any actual printing. You can spin the image to your heart's content and fully appreciate what you've captured. If you've picked up any unwanted bits, tap the Erase button. The tool is pretty tricky to maneuver on a tablet touchscreen, so it will likely take you a while to get things just right if you picked up lots of excess information. Also, no matter how good a scan you got, odds are high you didn't get everything. In the case of a person's face, there are likely some bits under the chin or on top of the head that you just weren't able to capture.

That's where the Solidify tool comes in. One tap will help fill in some of the gaps you've left behind. How well it works depends on how much of the image you've actually captured. In the case of heads with small gaps, the tool does a pretty good job making one solid, printable mass. Ditto with the stuffed animals and even the bowl of fruit. The textures aren't always perfect and the colors are often off, but you can correct a lot of that with 3D Systems' Sculpt software. When I attempted to scan a bouquet of flowers, on the other hand, the results were a dripping puddle of surrealistic acid dreams that might well have given Dali nightmares. Unless you're happy with the otherworldly results, your only recourse at that point is hitting the trash can icon and starting all over again. Sorry.

The next page, Enhance, features a few more touch-up tools. Here, you can smooth out rough textures and once again trim unwanted bits. With the possible exception of Solidify, there's no magic bullet among these editing tools. Once you've got the scan, there's only so much you can actually do to the image. 3D Systems has done a good job making things simple here, but this is hardly a high-end 3D editing suite. If you're looking to do some heavy-duty corrections, the final page will let you save files as an STL or PLY and import them into a third-party program. If you'd like something equally user-friendly, Sculpt offers some interesting solutions for correction and mashups, so you can, say, put your face on Mount Rushmore if you see fit.

From there, you can also upload the file directly to the Cubify web offering, if you want 3D Systems to put you in a Star Trek uniform. The Print button, meanwhile, will import the file directly into the Cube print program. If you want to print the image on a third-party device, you can just use the exported file.

Wrap-up

The first time you hold Sense in your hand, it feels like a revelation. It's a relatively low-cost device addressing a problem that's been keeping 3D printing from going mainstream. The handheld does a solid job capturing details and color for a device of this class, and the software goes out of its way to make the whole experience simple out of the box. The Sense is markedly cheaper than MakerBot's Digitizer and is capable of capturing images larger than eight inches tall; though when it comes to digitizing smaller objects, MakerBot's offering still has a leg up.

There are a number of things we hope 3D Systems addresses next time out. Cutting the cord would be great. The software also has some hiccups and, in a few cases, the company has sacrificed functionality for the sake of keeping things user-friendly. And while the product costs $1,000 less than the competition, even $400 is a lot to ask for a product that you might not use very often. If you're a designer with a 3D printer lying around, it's a killer add-on. There's also some real potential here for 3D modelers and game developers on a budget. As for mainstream consumers, however, keeping a folder of 3D models is likely not enough to justify the cost of what will, for them, essentially be a toy.

Between its printers, software, web offering and Sense scanner, 3D Systems is building a robust ecosystem that puts the company in a strong position to be at the forefront of the home 3D-printing revolution. In a few years, it's easy to see something like the Sense being a much more mainstream product. In the meantime, the scanner is ready for the masses, but the masses are probably not quite ready for it. When they are, however, they've got some extremely cool technology waiting for them.

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3D Systems Sense review: a 3D scanner for the masses (almost)