Michael Raphael

Michael Raphael, president and chief engineer of Direct Dimensions, is pictured with one of the company's 3D laser scanners. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / December 3, 2010)

Bit by bit, Michael Raphael's company is digitizing the real world.

Direct Dimensions, the Owings Mills firm he founded, scans items, buildings and even people and turns the results into 3-D computerized models. It has trained its equipment on everything from the presidential limousine to submarines to the Lincoln Memorial. Clients have used these digital copies for projects ranging from building renovations to special effects for films.

Seeing growth potential in one of its niches, Direct Dimensions is preparing to spin off a new firm — ShapeShot — that will focus specifically on scanning people's faces. About five of Direct Dimensions' 25 employees will go with ShapeShot when it launches in January.

Raphael was an aerospace engineer at what was then Martin Marietta Corp. when he helped turn a medical technology into an industrial 3-D measurement tool. Seeing the possibilities, he started a company to focus on 3-D in 1995.

Raphael, 47, spoke with The Baltimore Sun about spinoff plans, his firm's most interesting projects and why Hollywood has come calling.

Question: What are some of the largest things you've scanned?

Answer: We're doing Shock Trauma [at the University of Maryland Medical Center] right now. Large portions of it, not the complete hospital. … We scanned a dry dock for a submarine; we've scanned submarines. We've scanned [one of] the biggest airplanes on the planet, C-5A.

We scanned Abe Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial because the government called us right after 9/11 and said: "Hey, we heard you scan stuff. We want to see it."

Q: Why scan monuments?

A: All of the priceless, precious cultural artifacts that you and I know about that are subject to damage, terrorism, decay from environmental pollution, graffiti even … need to be documented in 3-D, at the highest levels possible, because we can. And I mean that. Because we can and should. If they go away and we haven't done that, we haven't done our grandkids a service.

Q: Why do you scan people?

A: It started as a medical rationale … for the creation of cosmetically accurate facial prosthetics. … If you lost a piece of your face, we can image the other side and mirror it over, and it would be an exact duplicate of your geometry. We started doing that with folks at Johns Hopkins 10 years ago, and over the years [have done] that more and more — for example, for U.S. soldiers injured in battle.

[Now we're also] doing it for Hollywood. We scanned Natalie Portman … for the digital effects in [the film "Black Swan"] last spring.

Q: How does the scanning and digitizing process work? Do you go to the subject or vice versa?

A: Usually, if it's small enough, it comes to us. If it's bigger, we go to it. If we go to it, we bring our scanners, we scan the object or facility, we return to our office with the raw 3-D data, and we work with highly specialized software to transform the raw data into 3-D CAD models — CAD [stands for] computer-aided design.

That work has taken us all over the world. … We imaged a palace, a historic palace in Seoul, [South] Korea, for historic preservation.

Q: What's the coolest project you've worked on?

A: The presidential limousine — that was pretty cool. And we've done other secret things that I won't mention.

We've worked with some of the biggest artists on the planet. There's a fellow, an artist named Jeff Koons — he is huge [in the contemporary sculpture world], and we've done a tremendous amount of work with Jeff and his team.