What is Reality Capture?

Henry Ford said “If I asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”

Reality capture is to old workflows in architecture, engineering, construction, and other industries what the car was to the horse – a better, faster way birthed from transformative technology. At its core, reality capture consists of documenting our physical world – in ways explained below – then representing that data digitally. By documenting and representing our world this way, it enhances it in many more.

So congratulations. Because if you’re here, you’re fond of progress. Innovation. You’re at least curious about one of the most empowering technologies of our time.

So let’s explore what makes it so.


Before reality capture, manually representing the physical world was at best a devilish migraine, and at worst a company-derailing lawsuit, depending on what disaster occurred. Sure, professionals in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) may have known their methods were rife with inefficiencies, inaccuracies, and even injuries. But what choice did they have but to use that tape measurer, and know human error is just a cost of doing business? To manually climb that ramshackle silo? To respond to that raging structure fire with faulty layout data?

Reality capture presents not just a choice, but a revolution. Its seamless documentation and digital representation serves numerous fields, which are listed and discussed below. It touches every stage of a project. It puts money back in budgets. It puts people back in safe situations. And it puts time back in lives, generating happier employees, smarter companies, and a better built world.


The list is ever-growing, as reality capture remains nascent. But the following fields have seen unprecedented efficiency through judicious use of reality capture:

      • Surveying and Mapping
      • Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC)
      • Forestry, Biology and Natural Resource Management
      • Geospatial and Environmental Sciences
      • Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Preservation
      • Transportation and Infrastructure
      • Energy and Utilities
      • Mining and Natural Resources
      • Defense and SecurityInsurance and Risk Assessment
      • Agriculture & Real Estate
      • Gaming, Film & Television
      • Telecommunications

the types

While niche methods of reality capture exist, the three listed below are by far the most embraced. Be sure to read each method’s dedicated blog, which will be linked, if you’re after something meatier.
1. LiDAR (LIGHT DETECTION AND RANGING) entails lasers capturing millions of data points to determine the shape, size, distance, and surface characteristics of objects or environments. It is often used interchangeably – sometimes mistakenly – with the term “laser scanning” depending on the specific goals and context of the job – more on that later.
What is Reality Capture
Surveyor with a laser scanner. This would be commonly referred to as a terrestrial scanner. Image credit 1st Horizon 3D.
How it works: Emitted laser beams bounce off surfaces and return to the scanner. The time it takes for that to happen, informs the distance to each point on the object’s surface.
This LiDAR system becomes aerial thanks to a drone. Image credit YellowScan.
Multiple scans are often taken from different positions and angles to comprehensively capture the object or environment. The data is processed, and a “point cloud” is formed, which is a large collection of 3D points representing the surfaces of all that was scanned. This point cloud can then be further processed to create 3D models.
A presidential point cloud. Image credit Autodesk.
Confusion alert! Take a breath, we’ll get through this.

Semantics are an ongoing dilemma in reality capture, with “LiDAR” & “laser scanner” collectively serving as Exhibit A.

In most conversations, the term “laser scanner” refers to setups that are stationary, terrestrial (on ground). Conversely, “LiDAR” frequently pertains to systems mounted to airborne or grounded vehicles and cover expansive areas (think “mobile” and “aerial.”) For example, LiDAR and drones are a bona fide reality capture marriage, having become instrumental in historic preservation, emergency response, archaeology, environmental sciences, and other fields that often involve large portions of land or water.

“How a Laser Scanner Works” by Leica, a renowned manufacturer

3D Laser Scanning Buildings Using SLAM100 LiDAR Scanner"
by Foxtech drone shop

One industry for which LiDAR has been a dynamo is land surveying, which you can grasp in full here. Additionally, enjoy a deep dive on LiDAR, and grasp the importance of dependable software & workstations here.
2. Photogrammetry uses overlapping photographs of an object or environment to establish measurements, layout, and surface data.
This guy’s going to get more coverage than an election. Image credit Medium.
How it works: Photographs of an object or environment are taken from different angles so as to overlap. Using triangulation, software processes these photographs to create accurate 3D models and measurements of the subject. Photogrammetry can rely on regular cameras, drones, or even satellite imagery. The key is the analysis of multiple images to extract 3D information.

"Urban photogrammetry" by Capturing Reality

3. 360° cameras also use photographs but capture everything around them, simultaneously, in horizontal and vertical directions.
360-degree cameras produce what’s sometimes called “spherical vision”. Image credit Teledyne Flir.
How it works: A 360° boasts multiple lenses, allowing capture of the complete field of view surrounding the camera. This yields a typically spherical or equirectangular image or video that allows viewers to look in any direction as if they were standing in the center of the scene.

While photogrammetry focuses on reconstructing 3D models from 2D images taken from different perspectives, 360° cameras focus on capturing an immersive view of a scene in all directions at once. However, it’s worth noting that 360° cameras can also be used in photogrammetry workflows to capture images from multiple viewpoints simultaneously, potentially expediting the data acquisition process for certain applications.

"Photogrammetry Using 360-Cameras" by 3D Forensics


Let’s lay down some practical, real-world examples of how and where each of these tools could be used.
    • A savvy surveyor might map topography using photogrammetry collected with a drone.
    • A prodigious pipe fitter might document existing conditions at an oil and gas facility with a terrestrial laser scanner on a tripod.
    • An astute archaeologist might uncover ancient ruins by a drone-mounted LiDAR system identifying a unique mound of grass protruding from a forest floor.
    • A resourceful real estate agent might create an enticing walkthrough of a home using a handheld 360° camera.
    • An ambitious airport could hire a reality capture company to create a digital twin
    • A vigilant VDC firm (virtual design & construction) could capture an existing building and create an as-built BIM model
Additional Case Studies:


While reality capture simplifies workflows, it’s not a simple process that allows you and the crew to press a button, hit the taco truck, and bill a customer. Here are some crucial tips that will serve you, your team, and your precious time.

    1. Embrace baby steps. Getting a feel for the technology with simple projects will pay sizable dividends over the long run. Just as common as people remaining married to antiquated workflows, is abandonment of superior technologies due to initial frustration, confusion, and failure. Get your hands dirty, experiment, iterate, fail, learn…and you’ll flourish.

    2. Every job has the right tool…and many wrong ones. If there is to be a panacea in reality capture, it’s still a ways off. There are dozens of factors that should determine what hardware, software, and plan to use, from resolution and cost, to accuracy and portability.

    3. Sweat the software because it’s not small stuff. World-class capturing means nada if it’s not adeptly processed. Click here for a detailed rundown of reality capture software.

    4. Scan the environment before you scan the environment. How’s the light? What’s the weather forecast? Is the wind fixing to give your drone a rough go of it? Is this Miami humidity okay for this scanner? The world around what you’re trying to capture can ruin what you’re trying to capture, so prepare accordingly.

    5. Stay updated & join communities. Reality capture is constantly evolving, with hardware and software innovations emerging regularly. It’s why we committed to a weekly newsletter done like none other in the space, as well as an online education center

the future

It’s radiant. Bright as our sun. Current agents of technological disruption – the metaverse, artificial intelligence, augmented & virtual reality, robotics, cloud computing and more – will continue to be symbiotic forces with reality capture, imbuing it with a power we likely can’t yet envision. If that’s our now, just imagine our future.

Then join us in actually building it.
At RCN, we empower professionals to optimize their projects in the built environment through education, connection, and innovation. It’s our privilege to offer you all that on this website through our podcast, education center, blog, forum, and annual conference. Enjoy, and welcome to the world of reality capture!

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