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Barack Obama Gets the First 3D-Printed Presidential Portrait

Here's how the Smithsonian 3D-scanned and printed the POTUS.
3-D–printed bust of President Obama created by the Smithsonian using 3-D scanning technology (Photo courtesy of Digital Program Office / Smithsonian Institution)

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Every official presidential portrait has taken the form of an oil painting since Gilbert Stuart painted George Washington back in 1797. That is, until Barack Obama had his taken with a digital camera when he stepped into the presidency in 2009. Now, his likeness has also been memorialized with the first 3D printed portrait, unveiled at this summer's Maker Faire on The White House lawn. In a new video from The White House, viewable above, you can go behind-the-scenes of Obama's 3D-face scanning session, conducted by digital imaging specialists from the Smithsonian.


“The system that we brought to be a part of this process is called our mobile light stage,” explains Paul Debevec of USC Institute of Creative Technologies in the video. "We’re setting it up right now so it can be used to record almost certainly the highest resolution digital model that’s been made of a head of state.” Their contraption is constructed of 50 custom-built LED lights, eight high resolution sports photography cameras, and six wide-range cameras. In a single second, Obama is illuminated by 10 different lighting conditions which captures all of the intricacies of his face, explains Debevec. Afterwards, specialists used handheld structured light scanners to collect more data on his visage's geometry.

Gunter Waibel, director of Smithsonian Digitization Program Office, explains that they were inspired by the plastered life masks of Abraham Lincoln which were direct replicas of his likeness. They wanted to use modern day technologies and tools to create a "similarly authentic experience that connects us to history to a moment of time, and to a person’s likeness."

Below, here is the final bust, now on display at the Commons gallery of the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as The Castle):


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