Leapfrog in Medicine, Movies and Outer Space

This is the second history blog in a six part series. If you missed part one, In the beginning, you can find it here.

In 1995, the success of the 3D ultrasound and laser scanning research prompted Rick Fright to start Applied Research Associates Ltd (ARANZ) along with friend and former fellow student Bruce McCallum (Electrical Eng.), Mark Nixon (medical doctor) and Brent Price (from Med Physics). Together they hit on the idea of a hand-held portable laser scanner, which allowed almost any solid object’s surface to be acquired and represented, initially, as a mesh of triangles.

A hand-held portable laser scanner being used on a troll model for Lord of the Rings.

A hand-held portable laser scanner being used on a troll model for Lord of the Rings.

These meshes were adequate for many applications, including the movie industry, where the scanner was very successful in computer animation and utilised in numerous films from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the Star Wars prequels.


ARANZ had high hopes for success in the movie industry but the market was very limited so ARANZ went back to their medical roots where the technology was needed and people were willing to pay for its functionality.

The hand-held laser scanner together with the FastRBF™ extensions software has become very successful in the prosthetics industry, the same surfacing principles used in Leapfrog are responsible for something like one in three of custom-fitting prosthetic limbs and orthotics made in the USA today.

This success in the medical industry enabled ARANZ to reinvest in the technology.

The FastRBF™ technology was relevant not just to their scanner but also to other types of laser scanners. Early uses of FastRBF™ surface modelling included LiDAR scanning, (light detection and ranging) and even a collaboration with NASA via Cornell University on the EROS asteroid rendezvous mission. RBFs were used to reconstruct the surface of Eros from noisy laser altimeter data and stereo photogrammetry as the spacecraft approached the asteroid. FastRBF™ was later used on Comet rendezvous and Mars missions. Other interesting applications included 3D image warping and quantitative measurement of tissue swelling in people and racehorses!

Mathematically robust meshes

The scanning process tended to encounter small holes and defects due to occlusion and other artefacts. Quantitative applications, which required manufacturing surfaces from laser scans, needed watertight meshes, which were mathematically robust and not just nice to look at. There was a need to solve these issues and take the product further. This desire for advancement rekindled the close collaboration with mathematician Rick Beatson.

Next – our next blog in this series looking back at the history of Leapfrog examines the progress to modelling in full 3D.