From submarines to sculptures, turning real life digital

Bit by bit, Michael Raphael's company is digitizing the real world.

Direct Dimensions, the Owings Mills firm he founded, scans items, buildings and even people and turns the results into 3-D computerized models. It has trained its equipment on everything from the presidential limousine to submarines to the Lincoln Memorial. Clients have used these digital copies for projects ranging from building renovations to special effects for films.

Seeing growth potential in one of its niches, Direct Dimensions is preparing to spin off a new firm — ShapeShot — that will focus specifically on scanning people's faces. About five of Direct Dimensions' 25 employees will go with ShapeShot when it launches in January.

Raphael was an aerospace engineer at what was then Martin Marietta Corp. when he helped turn a medical technology into an industrial 3-D measurement tool. Seeing the possibilities, he started a company to focus on 3-D in 1995.

Raphael, 47, spoke with The Baltimore Sun about spinoff plans, his firm's most interesting projects and why Hollywood has come calling.

Question: What are some of the largest things you've scanned?

Answer: We're doing Shock Trauma [at the University of Maryland Medical Center] right now. Large portions of it, not the complete hospital. … We scanned a dry dock for a submarine; we've scanned submarines. We've scanned [one of] the biggest airplanes on the planet, C-5A.

We scanned Abe Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial because the government called us right after 9/11 and said: "Hey, we heard you scan stuff. We want to see it."

Q: Why scan monuments?

A: All of the priceless, precious cultural artifacts that you and I know about that are subject to damage, terrorism, decay from environmental pollution, graffiti even … need to be documented in 3-D, at the highest levels possible, because we can. And I mean that. Because we can and should. If they go away and we haven't done that, we haven't done our grandkids a service.

Q: Why do you scan people?

A: It started as a medical rationale … for the creation of cosmetically accurate facial prosthetics. … If you lost a piece of your face, we can image the other side and mirror it over, and it would be an exact duplicate of your geometry. We started doing that with folks at Johns Hopkins 10 years ago, and over the years [have done] that more and more — for example, for U.S. soldiers injured in battle.

[Now we're also] doing it for Hollywood. We scanned Natalie Portman … for the digital effects in [the film "Black Swan"] last spring.

Q: How does the scanning and digitizing process work? Do you go to the subject or vice versa?

A: Usually, if it's small enough, it comes to us. If it's bigger, we go to it. If we go to it, we bring our scanners, we scan the object or facility, we return to our office with the raw 3-D data, and we work with highly specialized software to transform the raw data into 3-D CAD models — CAD [stands for] computer-aided design.

That work has taken us all over the world. … We imaged a palace, a historic palace in Seoul, [South] Korea, for historic preservation.

Q: What's the coolest project you've worked on?

A: The presidential limousine — that was pretty cool. And we've done other secret things that I won't mention.

We've worked with some of the biggest artists on the planet. There's a fellow, an artist named Jeff Koons — he is huge [in the contemporary sculpture world], and we've done a tremendous amount of work with Jeff and his team.

Q: How do artists and museums find scanning helpful?

A: Our data is used to make enlargements. We can scan a model, and in a computer it can be scaled up, and then it can be fabricated at a larger scale as an exact duplicate. They can use it for conceptual purposes — design, analysis, things like that. Are you familiar with the sculpture they want to build in Baltimore that would be monumental in size?

Q: The metal sculpture proposed for the Westport neighborhood, you mean?

A: We scanned [a small model of] that. We scanned that to help them create renderings and visualizations of what that piece [would] look like. … Plus, they can use it for engineering analysis, fabrication and design purposes. Three-D digital data is the foundation for most modern manufacturing.

Q: Industrial and defense work for government contractors was once the majority of your business. Is that still true?

A: Yes, it is. … Our two largest clients, one is defense and one is an art client. Believe it or not.

Q: One of your newer lines of work is scanning buildings about to be renovated. Did contractors come to you, or did you sell them on the idea of 3-D models of the "before" stage?

A: We tend not to go out looking for the business. The phone rings, and the phone has been ringing more often for those types of services.

Q: What else is new these days?

A: We are going to spin off a new business around people scanning, face scanning — mostly for consumer and entertainment purposes. We will put you into video games, we will make bobbleheads of you, and there are other very interesting applications. Very interesting.

Q: Oh, come on — don't tease. What applications?

A: Eventually, you'd be able to put yourself in a movie. How cool would that be?

Q: How many movies has your company worked on?

A: A handful. … Our Abe Lincoln that I described earlier was used in [ "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"]. Literally. We supplied it for them to use it in the movie for digital effects. If you recall, Abe Lincoln got out of the chair and walked around, thank you very much. And that was Hollywood calling us.

Q: So how's business? Share some numbers.

A: We've never not made some profit. We don't know too many businesses these days who can say that. … Last year we had … total revenue of $3.5 million, and we're on pace to exceed that this year.

Q: How has the work changed over 15 years?

A: What's happening is the world is becoming more and more digital. … We put the physical world into 3-D digital formats. And as the world adopts 3-D more and more, that's why we get more calls.