Logo: University of Southern California

Pixels, Not Paint: Engineers Create the Most Realistic Presidential Portrait Ever

USC computer science team helps create the first 3D-printed bust of a U.S. president
By: Megan Hazle
February 27, 2015 —
USC Viterbi Computer Science Professor Paul Debevec stands behind President Barack Obama as he is scanned for his 3D portrait (Credit: White House)

The latest portrait of President Barack Obama is true to life — truly.

Last June, USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) Chief Visual Officer Paul Debevec traveled to the White House to join a Smithsonian Institution-led team in creating the first-ever 3-D portrait and 3-D-printed bust of a U.S. president. 

 President Obama's 3D bust makes history (Credit: Smithsonian Digitization Program Office)

For their portrait session with Obama, Debevec’s team brought a modified version of their Playa Vista-based Light Stage X to Washington, D.C. The high-speed system used eight cameras and custom-built 50 LED lights to create a realistic computer model of Obama in just over a second by flashing ten polarized lighting conditions over the president’s face to record the effects of light striking his face from different angles. Back at the Smithsonian’s offices, the team processed the data from the Light Stage as well as scans collected by the Smithsonian with handheld 3-D scanners, in order to create a digital portrait for a life-sized 3-D–print bust of the president. 

“The Smithsonian’s 3-D presidential portrait project represents the first deployment of a Light Stage system designed for mobile use, and the fastest scanning session ever conducted by ICT’s Graphics Laboratory,” said Debevec, also a USC Viterbi professor of computer science. “The Smithsonian Institution had an ambitious vision to create the first-ever 3-D-printed model of a president, and it was an honor to contribute our technology to the process.”

The Light Stage system has been used extensively in Hollywood to scan actors for their virtual roles in blockbusters including “Avatar,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Maleficent.” In 2010, Debevec and his collaborators received a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in recognition of their contribution to visual effects via the development of the Light Stage.The completed portrait and bust were displayed at the White House Maker Faire on June 18. In December, they were put on view in the Commons gallery of the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle in Washington.

(Left to right) Jernej Barbič, Paul Debevec and Hao Li in Light Stage X at USC ICT

Debevec and ICT have also used the Light Stage in collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Lab to create realistic virtual characters for immersive military training environments. The Army has funded much of the research underlying the development of the Light Stage systems. In addition, the USC Shoah Foundation has used the technology to scan Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter for a test project to preserve the ability for future generations to ask him questions.