Not so long ago, if you'd said that an automatic machine could print a lifelike, 3D portrait while you wait, you'd be told you need your head scanning – but this is precisely what the Royal Academy of Arts has on display this weekend.
The 'Veronica Scanner' (which takes its name from a portmanteau of the Latin word 'vera' meaning truth, and the Greek word for image, 'εικόνα'), uses an advanced form of digital photogrammetry to scan your head. Thousands of overlapping photographs are taken from many angles, then aligned by software algorithms – in what looks like a futuristic version of Photoshop – into a 3D model that can be rendered in a material of your choice. Perhaps marble, for a faux-classical (if slightly egocentric) bust.
Veronica, as the designers affectionately call her, has been developed by the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation and the Rothschild Foundation over the course of two years into a fully integrated package, that takes you from sitting to sculpture in a matter of hours. This marks a new moment for digital portraiture, as Adam Lowe, director at Factum Arte, explains, ‘We think of photographs as images but this odyssey into 3D portraiture demonstrates that they can also be sculptures.'
Before being brought to the RA, Veronica was used primarily to aid cosmetic surgery procedures, providing acutely precise 'before and after' images. This exhibition shifts Veronica's focus to the art world for the first time, and no doubt a few photo-realist purists will have a thing or two to say about it. The artistry, the makers believe, comes in the technological advancements, the ideas and the scientific progress, not necessarily in the self-sculpted products.
Nonetheless, the resulting photo-sculptures are remarkable objects, and the artistic possibilities that they offer are astonishing. Portrait heads can be made giant, or tiny, and used to create perfect raw bases for sculptors to then embellish, should they wish. But the most exciting thing of all is that for the first time, we can preserve a thoroughly accurate, non-judgmental representation of the human face, unbiased by pen, lens or canvas. As Lowe says, 'The dream of the Greek sculptors was to create a realism that went beyond subjective interpretation. We are thrilled that both the RA and the Rothschild Foundation have reacted so quickly to bring this emerging technology to the public in a spirit of experimentation and curiosity.’