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Smithsonian Creates 3-D Printed Bust of Obama

The life mask of the first presidential portrait created from 3-D scan data.

The life mask of the first presidential portrait created from 3-D scan data. // Smithsonian Institution/AP

It took all of seven minutes for the Smithsonian Institution to capture the data to create a precise 3-D printed rendition of his face.

Working with the University of Southern California, the Smithsonian's 3-D digital-imaging specialists set out to craft the "highest resolution digital model that's ever been made of a head of state."

In the 19th century, creating a life mask was a painstaking process for someone such as President Abraham Lincoln, as Günter Waibel, the director of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office, explains in the White House video below.

"There was plaster put on [Lincoln's] face, there were two little holes to poke where the nostrils were so he could breathe," Waibel says in the video.

But with 50 lights, a dozen cameras, and a few handheld light scanners, a team surrounding Obama's smiling visage captured all the precise measurements needed to create a 3-D printed bust in a matter of minutes.

Creating the actual presidential bust took longer. The nylon powder used in the 3-D printing process took shape over the course of 42 hours. The material then had to cool for an entire day before it was stable.

Waibel can't imagine a more perfect way to preserve the presidency for posterity.

"When you fast-forward to a future—20, 50, 100 years from now—where people want to learn about the first African-American president, then this can create a very unique connection," Waibel said.

But just how did the president react to to sitting for a 3-D printed bust?

"I think he was intrigued by the technology and was a very gracious participant in the process," Waibel said.

And the more important question: Did the leader of the free world twitch?

Waibel laughed at the inquiry and reiterated that it was a painless experience. "He was a really wonderful person to work with."

The resulting 3-D printed bust and life mask are currently on display at the Smithsonian Castle. They will later be housed at the National Portrait Gallery for future generations to behold—in all their minutely accurate glory.

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