The photograph above, contrary to appearances, does not show US president Barack Obama being beamed into another dimension by a gang of alien robots. Rather, its shows him being intricately scanned by a bank of high-speed cameras and LED lights in preparation for the first-ever 3D presidential portrait.
The “mobile light stage” used 50 custom LEDs and 14 cameras to compile an intricately detailed topography of the president’s head and upper torso, which was then used to 3D print a very, very accurate presidential bust for the Smithsonian museum.
In the uncropped version of the photo above, released by the White House this week, the portrait of former president Abraham Lincoln peers down upon Obama while he undergoes his one second-long scanning procedure. Lincoln had to sit for a considerably longer period of time while sculptors crafted the two life masks—the 19th century equivalent of a 3D portrait—that were made during his lifetime.
According to Leonard Volk, who created a Lincoln mask in 1860, it took about an hour for the plaster mold to set, and it did not release easily: “It hurt a little, as a few hairs of the tender temples pulled out with the plaster and made his eyes water.” Lincoln reportedly found the process “anything but agreeable.”
The Smithsonian has thus far refused to release the schematics that would allow anyone with a 3D printer to create their own perfect replica of Obama’s head. Perhaps that’s for the best—especially if those alien robots ever show up.