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A hardware‐based system is described which generates a 3D mapping directly into a memory array of all surfaces visible in its field of view. The system uses a conventional scanning strip‐light illumination technique and a CCD camera. However, instead of processing the 2D camera data in software, dedicated hardware detects and locates all visible surface elements and automatically loads the 3D coordinate and brightness data direct from the detection hardware into dual‐ported memory. This allows the hardware to operate in real time at camera speeds and allows a very compact representation of the scene information in the natural coordinate frame of a triangulation‐based system.