Arts & Design

Meet the Reinventor: HP’s Josh St. John, co-creator of Project Captis

The fashion world and other manufacturers can’t wait to get their hands on this magical “box” that captures the texture of any material in 3D.

By Sarah Murry — February 14, 2020

In the basement of Joshua St. John’s Southern California home, you’ll find evidence of a polymath at work.

For his role as head of creators for HP’s Z Workstation PC business, there’s a desk outfitted with powerful computers wide monitors. But there are also tools for tinkering: DSLR cameras, a haptic digital sculpting tool, 3D scanners, and an assortment of 3D-printed objects in interesting shapes and textures. 

He also has a massive collection of rocks, crystals, and minerals from when he worked as a fine jewelry designer, not necessarily a surprise for someone who describes himself as “obsessed with materials.” 

HP's Head of Creators Joshua St. John.

HP's Head of Creators Joshua St. John.

“There’s an emotional connection that people make with physical objects that is not informed by logic,” St. John says. “To me, it’s super interesting how you can build connections for people between moments, experiences, and materials that all kind of come together as something they care about deeply.”

St. John’s interest lies in the tactile world of materials, and how physical things can be translated into digital ones, and back again. “I kind of grew up inside of a machine shop,” he says, “I was just always building stuff.”

He came to HP about four years ago after an eclectic career in jewelry design, 3D design and manufacturing, and a stint in the research lab of the man credited with inventing 3D printing. He first joined HP’s Immersive Computing group to lead project management for 3D, where he contributed to many experimental ideas and projects including 3D scanning, FitStation and the Z 3D Camera.

He brought to HP what became Project Captis, a prototype device that uses a type of 3D imaging, called photometry, to capture virtually any material and render it digitally (Think: pebbled leather, the jagged crack in a sidewalk, the scales on a reptile’s skin, or the weft and warp of a woven fabric.)

There has been tremendous interest in Project Captis from diverse industries such as fashion, automotive, architecture, and gaming. Project Captis isn’t yet commercially available, but is currently in beta testing with potential partners, St. John says. “They’re banging down our doors to get their hands on this device.”

Project Captis is seen as a breakthrough for professional creators because it enables their designs to come alive with 3D representations of real-world materials.


Project Captis is seen as a breakthrough for professional creators because it enables their designs to come alive with 3D representations of real-world materials.

Capturing materials digitally

Project Captis, a collaboration with Adobe, was announced in October at the software company’s annual tradeshow Adobe MAX, resembles a tabletop space capsule, with a pyramid-like modular structure housing a mini-light studio (“It’s like a disco for ants,” jokes St. John). It snaps multiple photos of an object placed inside or underneath it, producing a rich data set of physically-based rendering (PBR) maps that capture an insane amount of detail: opacity, depth, shininess, and roughness. The files can then be manipulated with design and modeling software.

“Project Captis is not about a box,” St. John explains, “it’s about the opportunity to digitize all materials everywhere for visualization and manufacturing. What we want to use Project Captis for is to pioneer a new standard in digital materials.”

The ability to do this, with a device that’s both portable (the lightweight plastic layers snap apart and nest into a sort of Ninja Turtle shell that can be worn as a backpack) and scalable, is not only an engineering feat. It also heralds where we’re headed: The Fourth Industrial Revolution — a massive economic shift in which digital technologies such as 3D scanning and printing will disrupt the way goods and services are designed, manufactured, and transported for sale around the world.

While 3D scanning has been around for awhile, the data gained from it isn’t super useful without a ton of post-processing, St. John says. Project Captis, coupled with Substance by Adobe 3D software, can make it easy to transform physical materials into digital textures that fit neatly into existing workflows. On the manufacturing side, it can assist with gaining accurate measurements and perhaps even reverse engineering.

From 2D to 3D and back again

Project Captis could improve the design process of practically anything that’s currently made with 3D modeling or CAD software. “Standardizing digital materials is as important as the work HP did with PDL and PostScript when we first introduced flatbed scanners for 2D printing,” St. John says. 

Project Captis is also seen as leveling-up the tools available to professional creators, everyone from animators to architects to textile designers, by giving them the power to make their designs come alive with 3D representations of real-world materials. 

To design a fashionable pair of jeans today, for example, denim fabric is chemically treated to achieve a certain effect and then swatches are made. Designers use these swatches to help them create garments in the colors that they want. Specs are sent to the manufacturer so samples can be made. This whole process can be collapsed into a series of digital processes with tools like Project Captis, Z by HP Workstations and Adobe software. “You’re essentially using 3D materials capture to do the pre-visualization,” St. John explains. “It cuts down tremendously on the cost of prototyping and speed to market. And there’s an environmental impact, too, since it can reduce shipments and waste.” 

He sees these tools evolving to offer consumers a high degree of customization for products they buy, with a sort of library of digital materials that they could choose from and order an item manufactured in a lot size of one.

courtesy of adobe

For manufacturers in the fashion industry and beyond, designing with digital materials can shrink the cost of production and speed time-to-market.

Collaboration is the mother of invention

Project Captis itself is a showpiece for the process it aims to revolutionize. 

It required a multi-year collaboration between Adobe and HP teams as far away as California, Colorado, and France, with key partnerships between St. John and Anthony Salvi, Principal Product Manager at Adobe, and Jérôme Derel, Head of Digital Materials, 3D & Immersive at Adobe. The box itself is a work of materials innovation: It was originally prototyped in cardboard, and then in fabric-wrapped plastic, until St. John had a moment of inspiration while on paternity leave, when he was tinkering with a lamp he 3D printed with HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology.  

“I had this idea that I wanted to make a lamp based off of this node-and-beam structure that would all come apart like an erector set and snap together again. When I came back to work, I was like, ‘Oh, I can make the scan box for the Adobe guys using a very similar process.’” 

In a way, the making of Project Captis mirrors other creative and collaborative processes, St. John explains. “Invention is almost never done in a silo,” he says. “It's always a team sport, and it's usually taking existing bits that are already floating around in the world and putting them together in a new way.”