We take hyper-realistic 3D scanned and rendered cars for granted today. They're in movies, video games, fake spy shots, everywhere. The fact that it can be done at all still feels like science-fiction. The origins of it all are humbler and older than you'd think: In 1972, with students, yardsticks, and a VW Beetle.

Cars (and other objects) can, of course, be modelled by hand in 3D modeling applications, but for maximum accuracy, real cars are scanned into vast streams of math with scanners that use lasers and kinds of absurdly advanced gear. Look at this video that documents the process the Forza developers use to get sub-millimeter levels of detail for their car models. It's pretty amazing. But I think what computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland and his students did at the Graphics Lab in University of Utah's Computer Science department in the early '70s is even more remarkable.

Let's just get a bit of context for where computers were when Sutherland and his team were developing the procedures and algorithms used for 3D modeling and rendering: computers were still at least refrigerator-sized things, and most regular people hardly ever encountered one directly. Video displays were still a rarity, and it's likely the most advanced computer normal people would directly interact with was a Pong machine, which was capable of displaying two dashes, a dot, and a line. This is the era when Sutherland decided to figure out how to display and interact with virtual three-dimensional models on a computer.

Sutherland has a great quote from when he was asked about how he managed to achieve so much in this era:

"Well, I didn't know it was hard."

While Sutherland and his team were developing 3D display algorithms, they soon graduated from simple, rectilinear objects and needed some data sets of more complex, curved objects to work with. They were developing the now-ubiquitous polygonal mapping techniques to approximate complex surfaces, and had no modeling software as such, since, you know, nobody ever thought of it before. So they needed to scan a physical object, break its surface down into polygons, measure every line, and get that resulting data into their computers.

To "scan" a 3D object, they needed two key things: An object and a scanner. The object was Sutherland's wife Marsha's 1967 VW Beetle, and the "scanner" was Sutherland's students, armed with paint and yardsticks.