If it somehow escaped your attention last year, President Obama had his head 3-D scanned and printed. The portrait bust, a “life mask,” and scan data, are now a part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery. This weekend they’ll make their debut on the first floor of the museum as a part of the National Portrait Gallery’s President’s Day Weekend-themed activities. After February 16 it will be removed from display, with no plans for it to reappear in the immediate future.
The 3-D printed bust is not the first portrait of Obama in NPG’s collection. Prior to Obama’s first inauguration, NPG acquired the now maligned Shepard Fairey HOPE portrait and has since added several portraits of the president throughout his career. NPG has yet to commission a painting or sculpture of the president. “It changes with each president. Some have their portrait painted shortly before leaving office, and some after leaving,” says Brandon Fortune, NPG’s chief curator.
Inspired by the 1860 and 1865 Abraham Lincoln life masks, The 3-D digitization duo of Adam Metallo and Vincent Rossi proposed the idea of using current technology of 3-D scanning to accomplish the same goals. “We made it clear that we would not be using plaster, which is time consuming and messy. That’s the beauty of 3-D tech,” noted Rossi. Still, as with a painted portrait, fitting into the president’s schedule remained a challenge. Obama took a few minutes out of his afternoon on June 9, 2014, to sit for several data scans with handheld structured light 3-D scanners and to sit in a state-of-the-art light stage.
“Sometime [last] spring, we got an e-mail from Günter Waibel [director of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office] that they might have a project to scan a VIP in D.C. in the next couple of months,” says Paul Debevec, associate director of graphics research at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Debevec had gotten to know the team of Waibel, Matello, and Rossi in November of 2013, when he presented his work at the Smithsonian x 3D conference. “I talked about all the work we’ve used to digitize human faces in 3-D, and showed them the actors from Avatar.”
Debevec’s team at USC had built a light stage that combines high-speed photography with a variety of light settings to obtain data that is accurate within 1/10th of a millimeter. “It’s better than plaster,” he says. “It doesn’t deform the face and it can be used to capture natural expressions.” Additional collaborators were needed to complete the project within nine days: A team at Autodesk processed the data and 3D Systems printed the bust. It was unveiled on June 18, 2014, during the White House’s first Maker Faire.
The 3-D printed bust is another indication of the president’s commitment to additive manufacturing. In August 2012, the White House announced a $30 million investment initiative for additive manufacturing in Youngstown, Ohio. And, in 2013, the 3-D community took notice when Obama mentioned 3-D printing during his State of the Union Address. “He seemed genuinely interested in the technology,” says Debevic. “The president took some time after to know how the stuff works.”
It’s a refreshing approach. As the Atlantic noted of another past president whose likeness was captured with a new technology, John Quincy Adams responded less favorably to the daguerreotype.