Thinking about Reality Capture


    Reality capture refers to taking images of the physical world and using those to build an accurate digital model. A powerful tool, reality capture allows designers to work inside actual existing conditions — making their work more accurate and better adapted to reality. However, offering reality capture services to clients isn’t always straightforward, and every company needs to determine its business model.

    Reality capture has been around for a long time, but the tools and techniques have evolved dramatically and can be complicated. To start, reality capture does not involve a single technology; it can be accomplished with a number of different technologies, ranging from 3D laser scanning to photogrammetry, ground penetrating radar, aerial LiDAR, mobile LiDAR, and sonar mapping. The best technology to use for reality capture depends on the nature of the project.

    Organizations can take three routes to meet their reality capture needs: outsource, rent, or in-house practice.


    Outsourcing reality capture services for a project can be an easy way to reduce work. However, some organizations forget that project requirements must be defined clearly upfront to guarantee a positive outcome. Writing a request for proposal in a clear, detailed, and accurate way is essential. In the absence of a good RFP, the project team may receive massive volumes of data from the outsourcing vendor and not understand how to use it. Then the team feels that reality capture is not usable or beneficial, and the project struggles along without taking advantage of its true power.

    Another unintended consequence of outsourcing is that firms end up taking on fewer reality capture projects over time. This can be a vicious cycle. Firms that engage in outsourcing typically only accept a few reality capture projects each year. As a result, reality capture never becomes easier for the team. Consequently, over time, firms become less motivated to take on business that requires reality capture services. This is a precarious competitive position to be in. More and more projects are including reality capture requirements and firms that avoid taking on these projects will lose out to competitors.

    For firms that outsource reality capture, team education is a proven way to reduce the likelihood of project failures. Here are a few best practices:

    • Start with high-level education. Projects are rarely successful if teams simply take the reality capture portion and “throw it over the wall” to an outside vendor. When organizations understand the possibilities associated with reality capture, it makes them better consumers of outsourced services.
    • Understand what product is needed to meet the project’s reality capture needs. As discussed, there are several technologies that can be used to gather and deliver reality capture data. Before drafting an RFP for a reality capture service provider, it is essential to understand what tools are best suited to the project’s needs.
    • Learn how to specify clearly what level of data quality is required. Useful information for vendors includes the purpose for which the data will be used, as well as 3D positional accuracies. When RFPs include this level of detail, it increases the likelihood that the data deliverables will be useful.

    Some organizations choose the middle ground between outsourcing and insourcing; they elect to rent reality capture hardware and software when projects arise. One of the benefits is that teams get the latest technologies each time they rent. On the downside, however, their skills may degrade between projects, reducing return on time or money invested in training. Unless team members are continually using skills, it is hard to retain them. Also, each time a new technology is included in a rental arrangement, there are new skills to be learned and these skills-related challenges can lower project success rates.

    Rental equipment is not always available when firms need it, which can negatively affect project schedules. Reality capture hardware and software rental equipment must be scheduled in advance. If the necessary resources are already booked, project schedules may need to be moved out.

    Renting equipment often seems like a good solution for firms with three to seven projects per year that require reality capture services. Over time, however, renting becomes a dead end because it is costly for a large number of projects. Here are three best practices for determining whether renting is the right solution for your organization:

    • Evaluate market opportunities. Identify the types of projects where the firm currently uses reality capture services. Also, brainstorm new categories of work that the firm could pursue.
    • Look at renting as a proof of concept for a purchase decision. Renting hardware and software is a great way to test multiple technologies on dimensions such as range, speed, and office workflows.
    • Develop a business case based on expected return on investment. Once you have gathered information about the market potential and which reality capture technology would best meet your needs, you may want to develop a business case to persuade key stakeholders that this purchase decision makes sense. This should include the projected return on investment.
    In-house practice

    When firms invest in reality capture equipment, they can perform data collection for their clients’ projects, as well as act as a service provider for other firms that need reality capture services. A lack of industry knowledge, however, can be a pitfall when cultivating business in new market segments. As a firm’s workload grows, the need for collaboration and data management skills also increases. Teams must collaborate with their own clients, as well as their customers who have outsourced their reality capture needs. In addition, large volumes of data generated through reality capture must be stored and managed effectively.

    Understanding the broader possibilities can open clients’ eyes to the value of reality capture services as well as present new business opportunities for your firm.

    When firms own reality capture hardware and software, the potential for new projects quickly spirals up. Why not use it on every project, where applicable and profitable? The following three suggestions that can help remove barriers to reality capture business development:

    • Learn how reality capture tools align with different types of deliverables. Firms must understand what types of projects their particular reality capture tools are best suited to support. This knowledge can help employees target particular clients, industries, and projects.
    • Build an infrastructure to support data management. A well-designed system to support data management is essential as firms grow their reality capture business. However, this infrastructure does not have to be expensive or elaborate.
    • Learn what you can accomplish with reality capture data. Reality capture data can often be leveraged for multiple purposes, sometimes beyond even what the client envisioned. For example, data gathered on a university campus for a construction project could also be used for an online virtual campus tour. Understanding the broader possibilities can open clients’ eyes to the value of reality capture services as well as present new business opportunities for your firm.

    The success of reality capture projects depends on a combination of knowledge and skills that range from technical expertise to project-specific knowledge and industry understanding. Wherever your firm is on the reality capture adoption curve, a good technology consulting firm can help your team work more efficiently and avoid the common pitfalls that often lead to the failure of reality capture projects.

    Daniel Chapek, manager of reality capture solutions for IMAGINiT Technologies (, has more than a decade of experience working with infrastructure technology. He can be contacted at