A 3D scanner is a device that analyzes a real-world object or environment to collect data on its shape and possibly its appearance (i.e. color). The collected data can then be used to construct digital, three dimensional models.
Many different technologies can be used to build these 3D scanning devices; each technology comes with its own limitations, advantages and costs. Many limitations in the kind of objects that can be digitized are still present, for example, optical technologies encounter many difficulties with shiny, mirroring or transparent objects.
The purpose of a 3D scanner is usually to create a point cloud of geometric samples on the surface of the subject. These points can then be used to extrapolate the shape of the subject (a process called reconstruction). If color information is collected at each point, then the colors on the surface of the subject can also be determined.
3D scanners share several traits with cameras. Like cameras, they have a cone-like field of view, and like cameras, they can only collect information about surfaces that are not obscured. While a camera collects color information about surfaces within its field of view, a 3D scanner collects distance information about surfaces within its field of view. The "picture" produced by a 3D scanner describes the distance to a surface at each point in the picture. This allows the three dimensional position of each point in the picture to be identified.