Scanning Feet Could Be Just The Start For This Pittsburgh Tech Firm

May 16, 2017

In 2007, Mike Formica had just sold his tech start up and was looking for something to do when he was approached by a group of scientists from The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. 

They wanted a device that would detect joint swelling in the hands of people who suffer arthritis. Formica jumped on board and started to look for a solution, but wasn’t happy with what he found.

“In the process of looking around the industry, I learned a lot about how 3-D scanning works and I said, ‘You know, I think we can make our own,’” Formica said. “So we spent one weekend, we got a laser line level from Lowes and a digital camera and took a bunch of pictures and made our first 3-D image of a Starbuck’s cup.”

He said it was far from perfect.

“It looked like it got melted in the sunlight, but you could tell it kind of looked like a cup,” Formica said.

Once they improved the tool, Formica quickly realized he had something that would work for other industries and threeRivers 3D was born, with Formica as the President and CEO.

With a $25,000 price tag, the scanner was only selling to big clients like a museum that wanted 3-D scans of cave carvings and the U.S. Department of Defense, which used the machine to scan the decks of aircraft carriers to look for imperfections.

Then threeRivers 3D was approached by a company that wanted to scan feet. They wanted thousands of machines, but only if they were less expensive.

Formica stands at the table where the 3D scanners are assembled.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

The idea was to give a standardized scanner to a doctor who would then have orthopedics, such as shoe inserts, made by that company. So, Formica started to look at every piece of his system.

Rather than using a $1,000 laser, they figured out how to build their own. By purchasing parts, they were able to replace a $300 camera for about $40. 

But cheaper parts often need more calibration. At first, it took an employee with a Ph.D. a week to calibrate each camera. They were able to trim that amount of time down to one day, but it still wasn't good enough.

“It was never going to scale,” Formica said. So they developed a machine that automatically calibrates the scanner.

He pointed to a machine, purposefully draped with a sheet to keep out the prying eyes of any visitor. 

“We load it in, shut the door, let it go through its magic… and we can do a calibration,” he said. “I could teach you to do a calibration in two minutes because all you have to do is load it up and hit go.”

Then it was on to improving usability. Formica said the system is as easy to install as a webcam – just plug it in and it works. But doctors had to like it.

“Three-D models look like something an engineer would come up with and doctors don’t like that,” Formica said. “So we actually take a color image so it looks like a foot.”

Lynn Haubelt runs Associates in Podiatry in Pittsburgh. For the first 34 years of her practice, she used foam or plaster to make casts of her client’s feet. But since getting a scanning device, she has gone almost exclusively to digital.

“It’s like a cell phone, like how did you live without it?” Haubelt said. “First of all, it saves me half an hour appointment time, which I would schedule to do a plaster casting. My staff is now trained to do the scan, I don’t even attend the scan.”

Haubelt does review the scans before they leave the office.

The scans can be electronically sent to the company making the orthotics, which eliminates the time needed to send foam or plaster casts by mail. The scans also eliminate the risk of the casts being damaged during shipping.

ThreeRivers 3D is working on a version of the scanner that would allow patients to scan their own feet in a kiosk-like device which could have uses outside of a doctor’s office.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • A Pittsburgh clothing retailer says it is the first in the nation to offer an augmented realty system that allows customers to try on clothes in a virtual environment. Surmesur, located downtown, will load the tailor-made clothing choices onto a 3-D animation to see how the fabrics, colors and styles work before placing an order.
  • Experts say last week’s cyberextortion might have been a perfect storm and it could be difficult to repeat the conditions that allowed the WannaCry ransomware to proliferate. Mikko Hypponen is chief research officer at the Helsinki-based cybersecurity company F-Secur. He says ransomware attacks are "not going to be the norm." But they could still linger as low-grade infections that flare up from time to time. He calls this “a wake-up call," that many have heeded.