There are plenty of technologies that aid in converting real-life objects into realistic 3d models. Laser scanners can be used to get a rough mesh and refractometers can be used to gather refraction data. Color can be captured with a camera. But, generally speaking, you can’t have a usable object without an artist stepping in and putting in a lot of effort to make sure the geometry is correct and the shaders are sound. At least, that’s how it has been up until now.
A company called NEK has created a 3d scanner called the Orcam (orbital camera system) that is capable of faithfully reproducing an object in 3d space, textures and all. A user simply inserts any object up to 80cm wide into the machine and closes it up. Then a series of lights provide equal diffuse shading to remove all shadows while 7 cameras rotate around the object photographing it from all angles. A series of projected lines help the cameras determine the shape of the object down to the minute details. While this is going on, the reflectivity, diffuse, and other material properties are recorded so that a shader can be created.
The device was designed for digital media such as movies and video games, but because of the extreme precision it uses it can be utilized for research and simulations as well. Some artists might worry that technology such as this is reducing the need for people like us, but I see this as another tool that can be used to help us improve the realism of our scenes, something that the CG community constantly strives for.