3D Scanning with iPhone: Exciting Potential, But Read This Before You Start

Programming - Apr 19, 2024

A 3D cube sits on a purple background on the left. The background transforms into an arrow going through the outline of a phone and then pointing at the Shopify logo. The image represents the process of scanning real world objects for Shopify stores.

In September, Shopify added the ability to create 3D scans using an iPhone to their iOS app. This was possible due to a new iOS 17 feature that promised to make 3D scans much easier for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, creating good 3D models turns out to more difficult than promised. In fact, some of my scans look hilarious. But eventually, I was able to create a realistic 3D model.

A 3D model of an iPad stand made from a modified cutting board.

So, before you jump headfirst into the world of virtual mugs and AR lampshades, let’s dive into the reality of iOS 17’s 3D scanning. We’ll explore what it is, how it works, what works well, what to avoid, and how to maximize your chances of actually getting a decent scan.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the billions of dollars lost due to ecommerce returns and the environmental impact of returned products going into landfills. Cloudinary commissioned a study that found a “A third (30%) of respondents reported that they returned products they bought because they didn’t look as expected on the website.” 

One of Cloudinary’s suggestions for how to decrease returns and cart abandonment was to use 3D models. Survey respondents said they “are more likely to buy if they have access to helpful media such as 360-degree spinsets (57%), 3D models (53%), and user-generated videos (50%).”

Shopify echoed this argument when it described three potential benefits of the new 3D scanning feature in their app:

  1. Save money and time
  2. Boost buyer confidence and conversion rates
  3. Minimizing returns and customer service demands

Outside of ecommerce, 3D models may also have increased importance in the future depending on the success of augmented reality and virtual reality headsets. I will be watching the upcoming release of Apple’s Vision Pro closely to see if it increases the number of people creating their own 3D models.

This feature utilizes the iPhone’s camera and LiDAR sensor to create photogrammetric 3D models. Photogrammetric 3D models stitch multiple photographs of an object into a 3D representation. Apple provides an API for this feature which is what Shopify and others use to embed the technology in their own apps.

Scanning involves slowly circling the object while the app guides you, offering feedback and requesting additional scans as needed. The final stitching and processing takes several minutes.

This short video shows the full 3D scanning process. It requires you to circle the object you’re scanning three times and then takes several minutes to stitch together the images into the 3D model.

My first scan was of my Progressive Web Apps book coffee mug. The end result looked more like it belonged in the clay-crafted world of Wallace and Gromit than in my kitchen cupboard.

A 3D model of a coffee mug featuring the cover of my Progressive Web Apps book. It looks like it was crafted from clay.

After my coffee mug failed, I looked around for something without a shiny surface. I found a papier-mâché piggy bank with matte surfaces that our kid had created when they were younger.

A 3D model of a pink, papier-mâché piggy bank with wings that look like blocks of cotton candy. Our child wrote “When pigs fly” in three places on the pig.

While I love this scan, the wings look more like cotton candy than the actual feathers in use. The feathers are too thin. The LiDAR scanner goes right through them.

Unfortunately, I made a similar mistake with my next object. We had recently purchased new table lamps. They seemed perfect for scanning.

They weren’t. Well, unless you were looking for a 3D model of a lamp that barely survived a fire.

A 3D scan of our brand new, midcentury modern, blue table lamp with a cream color shade. In the scan, the lamp looks like it barely survived a fire.

Objects need to be larger than 3 inches on all sides in order for the iPhone scanner to work. If you try to scan something smaller, the app will provide feedback and refuse to start the scan.

In addition, I found that if the object I tried to scan was too close in size to the size of whatever surface it is sitting on, that the scanner had a hard time distinguishing between the two.

That’s why the top of the table was included in the lamp model above. The lamp shade was nearly the same size as the end table the lamp was sitting on. My phone had a difficult time figuring out where the lamp ended and where the end table began.

In this video, I attempted to scan a wooden bowl sitting on top of a stack of white drawers. The wooden bowl was nearly the same width as the drawers and my iPhone could not distinguish between the bowl and the drawers.

Many other 3D scanning solutions use an automated turntable so the camera and lighting are fixed. I tried to replicate this manually using a rotating server from our kitchen.

It didn’t work. The scanner requires you to move around the object, not the other way around.

Video of my attempt to scan an gold-colored owl sculpture using a rotating server. The app never recognizes that the owl is turning.
  • Choose the Right Object: Opt for solid, textured, non-shiny objects of appropriate size.
  • Use a Tall, Round Table: A tall, round surface lets you circle the object without bending like a pretzel.
  • Opt for Soft, Diffused Lighting: Avoid creating shadows by using multiple soft lights. You will cast a shadow unless light is coming from multiple directions.

While iOS 17’s scanner democratizes 3D model creation, its limitations may hinder its utility, especially in ecommerce where image quality is paramount. Professional 3D models often involve higher-end equipment or can be derived from product design files.

Despite the challenges, I’m still excited about scanning in iOS 17. I love the fact that it is significantly easier to create 3D models. I had never created one before. Anyone can do it now.

I’m hopeful the quality will increase in the future. Most iPhones support higher resolutions than are used in the scans. Apple likely limits the resolution to speed model processing, but as far as I know, there’s no technical reason why the scans couldn’t use higher resolution photos.

That said, my optimism is tempered by the limitations. If you’re going to scan many objects or if your objects don’t fit what the iPhone can capture well, you may need to find some other 3D scanning solution.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where I’ll discuss integrating 3D models into web pages and the performance considerations involved.

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