Autodesk Gallery Exhibit: 3D SOS


"I'll send an SOS to the world
 I'll send an SOS to the world
 I hope that someone gets
 My message in a bottle"
— "Message in a Bottle," Reggatta de Blanc, The Police, 1979.

The Autodesk Gallery at One Market in San Francisco celebrates design — the process of taking a great idea and turning it into a reality. With about 60 different exhibits regularly on display that showcase the innovative work of Autodesk customers, the gallery illustrates the role technology plays in great design and engineering. I am one of about 80 Autodesk employees who volunteer as ambassadors for the gallery. Gallery Curator, Jason Medal-Katz, chose the title ambassador instead of docent because the correct way to address an ambassador is "your excellency," yet this never happens. Ambassadors conduct gallery tours as a a sideline to their day jobs. The tours provide employees with opportunities to practice public speaking in front of small groups.

One of our long-standing exhibits is aquatic in nature. With regard to the 3D SOS exhibit:



Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to determining the health of the world's oceans. Despite this, believe it or not, for years scientists have been using plain old measuring tape to track the growth and degradation of the world's coral reefs. But now, Sly Lee — a former biological science technician and founder of the Hydrous, a science communication 501(c)3 nonprofit, is using advanced 3D mapping and rendering software to keep an eye on the world's reefs. After taking thousands of photos of reefs in the Maldives, Lee uploaded the images to Autodesk software that stitches them together into high-resolution 3D models that show fine-grained changes in the coral's surface area, size, and color. Using this technology, marine scientists can get hard numbers on the change in size and shape of reefs over time.

The Hydrous strives to communicate science beautifully. Using innovative and beautiful visualizations, they seek to make coral reefs accessible to local stakeholders and people around the world. Using Autodesk software, they have pioneered a method to capture coral reefs in highly detailed 3D computer models for revolutionary scientific and educational tools. For example, this piece of coral and its 3D print are almost identical. This fine level of detail was made possible by combining 350 pictures of the native coral to generate a computer model and then 3D print the model.


This approach can be applied not to just pieces of coral but entire reefs and structures. The Hydrous' first expedition using reality capture was in Palau — a small island country located in the Pacific Ocean. In December 2014, The Hydrous team, in collaboration with the National Park Service, began some of the first research in Pearl Harbor to monitor coral settlement and growth around the USS Utah and USS Arizona. The Park Service had noticed unusual amounts of coral growth in that area.


With a 3D model in hand, scientists can compute square footage and volume programmatically rather than rely on individual physical measurements. A year later, they can return to the reef, repeat the process by taking pictures and creating a new model. They can then compare the two models and precisely identify growth and shrinkage amounts.

As such, for Lee, Autodesk software:

  • Enabled groundbreaking method of accurate visualizing and measuring coral surface area.
  • Drastically reduced costs.
  • Provided results faster than alternative software packages and faster than alternative methods.
  • Demonstrated that photogrammetry was easier and more accessible than previous practices.

Lee's goal is to create an online catalog of all the corals in the world. With a little help, it's a goal that’s not too far-fetched. Autodesk ReCap software makes it as easy as pointing and shooting, so divers everywhere can assist. The real goal, of course, is to provide valuable insight and solid evidence that informs and educates, and will ultimately result in policies to protect our ocean's coral reefs. Because years from now, we don't want online to be the only place we can see them.

Thanks to the Autodesk Gallery team for the descriptive text for this blog post.

The Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco is open to the public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. There is a guided tour on Wednesdays at 12:30 pm and a self-guided audio tour available anytime. Admission is free. Visit us.

Reef life is alive in the lab.