Laser scanning technology is useful for measurement and surface creation in 2D, 3D and 4D applications. These devices bounce laser light off of distant objects, capturing the reflected light to form point clouds. Visualization is an integrated process that can be as simple as a 2D digital map, or as complex as a fully integrated collection of different data types, involving lighting, textures and other characteristics. Generally, laser scanning applications are directed toward applications that involve a higher need for more accuracy, although, this technology provides other benefits such as quick data collection, immediate 3D measurement and is now capable of providing direct 3D spatial analysis or feature extraction.
The technology for laser scanning was developed long before the ability to use point clouds became common place. It is only recently that we now see high-end visualizations and feature extraction connected to point clouds becoming available. Indeed, it has only been weeks since we have been able to perform complex 3D spatial analysis of point clouds directly within geographic information systems, although manipulation of point clouds have long been available.
Inceasingly, professionals working in the visualization and rendering fields are interested in developing more photo-realistic results. To achieve this, they have previously used CAD design software to directly create the surfaces and objects that are then textured and rendered. Laser scanning shortens this relationship, allowing for the creation of larger scale 3D models of ALL objects within the scanners view. Users can then add textures to the these point cloud generated surfaces directly.
For this reason we find many people interested in constructing 3D models of existing facilities, using 3D laser scanners. In fact, any object or surface can be duplicated quickly and easily, into a 3D model, through the use of a 3D laser scanner. The costs of laser scanners has dropped considerably, and compares favorably with other technologies in terms of overall cost-benefit where 3D modeling is being considered.
If there is a part of the point cloud - visualization workflow that is more difficult, it is the processing of the point clouds. Not everyone knows how to create a surface from the point cloud data, and in some cases, their hardware cannot handle such large files. Since all point clouds must be processed to become surfaces and solids, then software or a means to create these 3D models is needed. However, there are many providers of point cloud data handling how can provide guidance online.
On the visualization side of the equation, lighting, texturing and other characteristics connected to providing realistic environments remain clearly in the computer graphics, visualization and rendering domain. Combining the output of point clouds to these high performance graphics packages is not widely available, although some companies handling spatially oriented data that is geo-referenced have made the connection- see here , here, here and here.
Do we need laser scanning to create 3D visualizations? Yes and no. We do if are really interested in constructing a 3D model of an existing environment. It speeds things up and works well. But keep in mind that architectural drawings and urban planning designs are often constructed for new communities or construction, and therefore originate from CAD and GIS design. In this sense, laser scanning is useful where there is something to be scanned. Alternatively, where design and new construction are involved, 3D modelling software and 3D design software are likely to predominate.