A novel appearance-based simulator of burst illumination laser sequences, SimBIL, is presented and the sequences it generates are compared with those of a physical model-based simulator that the authors have developed concurrently. SimBIL uses a database of 3D, geometric object models as faceted meshes, and attaches example-based representations of material appearances to each model surface. The representation is based on examples of intensity-time profiles for a set of orientations and materials. The dimensionality of the large set of profile examples (called a profile eigenspace) is reduced by principal component analysis. Depth and orientation of the model facets are used to simulate time gating, deciding which object parts are imaged for every frame in the sequence. Model orientation and material type are used to index the profile eigenspaces and assign an intensity-time profile to frame pixels. To assess comparatively the practical merit of SimBIL sequences, the authors compare range images reconstructed by a reference algorithm using sequences from SimBIL, from the physics-based simulator, and real BIL sequences. © 2008 The Institution of Engineering and Technology.