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.

They mapped out polygons right on the Beetle itself, and measured every line in what must have been that uniquely scientific mix of tedious and exciting. The resulting dataset was entered into Sutherland's programs, and produced this first 3D wireframe model of a car. Actually, the first 3D model of any physical-world thing, ever.

The model was just the outer surface of the Bug, sans wheels, bumpers, etc., though they did include details like the indicator lights, window openings, and headlight rings. This model proved incredibly valuable as test data for the team's work, and was used to test early rendering techniques as well, such as Bui Tuong Phong's rendering work that produced an image of the Beetle that was history's first computer-generated image that looked like its physical model. That's a big deal, when you think about it.

In 1975, Martin Newell created the ubiquitous teapot that eventually became the go-to data set for 3D researchers and developers. But this teapot was just eyeballed and sketched, then translated into numerical data. The Beetle, being larger and more complex, never achieved the same status as a default test object like the teapot, but it still has the distinction of being the sole ancestor of every car in Forza or Need For Speed, or for that matter, anything that's ever been scanned from life into data.

You can actually still find the original data on the internet as a DXF or 3DS or other file types, but it does take some looking to find a genuine one. I think I have one (shown above from my 3D app) that has a file creation date of 1985, which makes it seem plausible it's a copy of that original dataset. I'd encourage anyone interested in 3D graphics to download it, since it's like a painter being able to download an original Mona Lisa. Sort of.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Computer History Museum, Nerd Plus Art, University of Utah)