Finally, the technology exists to replicate garden gnomes.
It's called the MakerBot Digitizer, and it allows you to scan 3D objects in the real-world and convert them into digital models. That way, you can modify the objects as needed, or just clone them using a 3D printer.
MakerBot's website uses a little gnome as its prime example. You could, for instance, scan the gnome, add a silly hat, fluff out the gnome's beard and resize the gnome before printing it out again. In addition to replicating figurines, the Digitizer could be useful for creating digital animations from real-world objects.
Digitizer rotates the object automatically and uses laser scanning to create a model with hundreds of thousands of triangles--a process that takes about 12 minutes. The included software converts those points into a 3D model and outputs an STL file, which users can then sculpt and modify as needed.
Digitizer does have some limitations. It can't detect colors, and, as MakerBot's FAQ points out, it doesn't work very well on surfaces that are shiny, reflective, fuzzy, or very dark. (Users can work around some of these limitations by covering the surface in cornstarch.) Surfaces that are hidden from the laser's view won't be detected, of course, so don't expect to accurately model the inside of a shoe. Digitizer can detect details down to 0.5 mm, but MakerBot warns that it's not an ideal tool for engineers who need high-precision scanning.
As you might expect, the tech is expensive: MakerBot charges $1400 for the Digitizer, and the company's Replicator 3D printer costs another $2199. MakerCare support costs another $150 for the Digitizer, and $350 for the printer. Getting everything you need through MakerBot, you're looking at up to $4100 to scan and print 3D objects.
But the hope is that over time, the cost of 3D printing will fall drastically. You can already get certain 3D printers for less than $1000, and the cost of 3D scanners will likely drop over time as well. It's clearly a product for enthusiasts and professionals now, but someday we might all be able to contribute to the great garden gnome invasion.