The main ingredients

Building a 3D model from sensor data involves three important steps:

  1. Extracting a 3D point cloud from a fixed location.
  2. Combining point clouds from multiple locations.
  3. Converting a point cloud into a mesh of triangles.

Figure 9.27: By using two cameras, stereo vision enables the location of a feature in the 3D world to be determined by intersecting the corresponding visibility ray from each camera. To accomplish this, the camera calibration parameters and relative poses must be known. Similarly, one camera could be replaced by a laser that illuminates the feature so that it is visible to the remaining camera. In either case, the principle is to intersect two visibility rays to obtain the result.

For the first step, a sensor is placed at a fixed position and orientation while 3D points are extracted. This could be accomplished in a number of ways. In theory, any of the depth cues from Section 6.1 can be applied to camera images to extract 3D points. Variations in focus, texture, and shading are commonly used in computer vision as monocular cues. If two cameras are facing the same scene and their relative positions and orientations are known, then binocular cues are used to determine depth. By identifying the same natural feature in both images, the corresponding visibility rays from each image are intersected to identify a point in space; see Figure 9.27. As in Section 9.3, the choice between natural and artificial features exists. A single camera and an IR projector or laser scanner may be used in combination so that depth is extracted by identifying where the lit point appears in the image. This is the basis of the Microsoft Kinect sensor (recall Figure 2.10 from Section 2.1). The resulting collection of 3D points is often called a point cloud.

In the second step, the problem is to merge scans from multiple locations. If the relative position and orientation of the scanner between scans is known, then the problem is solved. In the case of the object scanner shown in Figure 9.26(a), this was achieved by rotating the object on a turntable so that the position remains fixed and the orientation is precisely known for each scan. Suppose the sensor is instead carried by a robot, such as a drone. The robot usually maintains its own estimate of its pose for purposes of collision avoidance and determining whether its task is achieved. This is also useful for determining the pose that corresponds to the time at which the scan was performed. Typically, the pose estimates are not accurate enough, which leads to an optimization problem in which the estimated pose is varied until the data between overlapping scans nicely aligns. The estimation-maximization (EM) algorithm is typically used in this case, which incrementally adjusts the pose in a way that yields the maximum likelihood explanation of the data in a statistical sense. If the sensor is carried by a human, then extra sensors may be included with the scanning device, as in the case of GPS for the scanner in Figure 9.26(b); otherwise, the problem of fusing data from multiple scans could become too difficult.

In the third stage, a large point cloud has been obtained and the problem is to generate a clean geometric model. Many difficulties exist. The point density may vary greatly, especially where two or more overlapping scans were made. In this case, some points may be discarded. Another problem is that outliers may exist, which correspond to isolated points that are far from their correct location. Methods are needed to detect and reject outliers. Yet another problem is that large holes or gaps in the data may exist. Once the data has been sufficiently cleaned, surfaces are typically fit to the data, from which triangular meshes are formed. Each of these problems is a research area in itself. To gain some familiarity, consider experimenting with the open-source Point Cloud Library, which was developed to handle the operations that arise in the second and third stages. Once a triangular mesh is obtained, texture mapping may also be performed if image data is also available. One of the greatest challenges for VR is that the resulting models often contain numerous flaws which are much more noticeable in VR than on a computer screen.

Steven M LaValle 2020-01-06