First 3D Presidential Portrait On Exhibit at the Smithsonian

Latest Tech

First 3D Presidential Portrait On Exhibit at the Smithsonian

Since the beginning of history, artistic portraits of political figures, historical heroes, and notable aristocrats have been commonplace in society. Oil paintings, marble busts, sketches on cotton cloth, even paintings on snuff boxes were used to preserve the likenesses of these figures.

Now, for the first time in United States history, a presidential likeness was produced using digital mapping and 3D printing.

Last June, the Smithsonian’s Castle Commons gallery unveiled President Barack Obama’s bust, and life mask. This marks the first time that a likeness of a Head of State has been represented independent of artistic interpretation.

In order to obtain the measurements, images, and map of the president’s face, a large group of equipment (including scaffolding, fifty custom LED lights, eight high-end sports photography cameras, as well as an additional six wide angle cameras), was fabricated to encompass the seated Obama.


“In about one second, as he holds his presidential pose, he’ll be illuminated by ten different lighting conditions which will change the polarization of the light, the directionality of the light, and will give us everything that we need to understand the shape of his face,” said Paul Debevec of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “Ten years ago, it was just barely possible to think that this could be done.”

After the images were taken, Vince Rossi, another member of the USC team (and one of his associates), used handheld, structured light, 3D scanners, which fanned light in short bursts over the president’s features. These helped to capture every crease, wrinkle, and curve of his face. Debevec stated it’s “almost certainly the highest-res digital model that’s ever been made of a head of state.”

The inspiration for these likenesses came from the life masks made of Abraham Lincoln’s face before, and during his presidency. Although back then, the process relied on plastering the subjects face, necessitating sitting still and allowing the plaster to dry. In Obama’s case, he merely withstood a grueling 90 seconds of sitting in front of some cameras and lights.

Not only was this process extremely helpful in providing a precise replication of the head of state, but it also raises the point of ushering in a new era of technology. “The president getting his likeness scanned, as cool as that is, is also about a broader trend that’s going on and that is the third industrial revolution,” said Tom Kalil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It’s the combination of the digital world and the physical world that is allowing student and entrepreneurs to be able to go from idea to prototype.”


The bust of Obama, along with his and President Lincoln’s life masks, will be on display in the Smithsonian’s Castle Commons gallery through December.


Photos courtesy of Smithsonian Institute-DPO. All rights reserved