3-D display puts images in the round

Like something out of the movie Star Wars, startup Actuality Systems Inc. last week uncloaked a 3-D computer display capable of turning flat computer-generated images into what look like solid objects.

The Perspecta Spatial 3-D Visualization Platform features a glass dome display where, inside, glowing computer images are suspended in midair. Besides flirting with science fiction, Actuality Systems' 3-D display has practical uses as diverse as pharmaceuticals design, drug discovery and health care and military endeavors. The display can render everything from molecular structures to medical images of the human body taken with an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner.

"It's a dramatically different way to visualize data," said Cameron Lewis, president and chief executive officer of Actuality Systems, who unveiled the system for reporters this week in San Francisco.

Inside the dome, an image coming from a workstation is manipulated and dissected into 198 "slices" using a series of complex algorithms. When combined, these slices, much like those of an orange, make up a spherical image. The image is then projected onto a paper-thin, transparent screen, and, as the image is projected, the screen rotates at 730-revolutions per minute to create the illusion of a free-floating image.

Actuality Systems, based in Burlington, Massachusetts, announced its first customer this week with the launch of version 1.5 of the device, the first one that is commercially available. The Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Maryland, has agreed to purchase one of four units in existence, though it would not disclose what it will use the technology for. The Lab conducts research and development for the U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Defense, NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and a number of other government agencies.

To demonstrate the capabilities of the Perspecta Spatial 3-D Visualization Platform, Actuality Systems created a military application it called "battlefield visualization." That demonstration rendered a helicopter displayed in transparent green lines, and, using a joystick, a user is able to steer the helicopter through a computer-generated landscape.

The current model of the display projects an image up to 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) in diameter and is made up of 100 million "volume pixels," or "voxels," the company said. Potentially, the technology could allow for images to be displayed as large as 2 feet in diameter.

StructuralGenomix Inc. (SGX), a bioinformatics company in San Diego, California, has also been testing one of the four Perspecta units for use in its research laboratory. StructuralGenomix specializes in building 3-D images of molecular and protein structures for use in the drug discovery process.

"We were interested in looking at new methods for molecular visualization," said Sean McCarthy, vice president of business development for StructuralGenomix. "This is in a sense a different way for scientists to interact with data."

The 3-D display aims to replace current solutions used in the biotechnology industry for visualizing 3-D data. As is the case at StructuralGenomix, most 3-D images are displayed on 2-D screens using software that allows users to rotate the image to see it from various angles. Another technology currently available allows users to view a virtual 3-D image through a pair of goggles.

"These methods work extremely well. It is the way we do most of our work at SGX," McCarthy said. However, the 3-D display has the potential to outperform special 3-D software and goggles by allowing an image to be viewed in three dimensions by more than one person at a time. Scientists are able to view an image projected inside the dome from any angle.

"The idea would be that you would have group participation. People would be able to show each other 3-D images in real time," McCarthy said.

A single display ships with an integrated workstation and a companion flat-panel display, and has a price tag of $40,000. Currently, the device ships with either IBM Corp.'s IntelliStation M Pro graphics workstation or a Hewlett-Packard Co. x2100-series workstation, and it can run on the Windows and Linux operating systems. The system can also be used with some third-party 3-D rendering software used for molecular visualization or industrial design.

Admittedly expensive, the company said that the cost has to do with the research and development costs behind building the first few units with a hodgepodge of parts. For instance, the glass shell that makes up the outer layer of the display was manufactured for use as a street light in Germany, Lewis said. As future generations of the display are released and hardware costs come down, Lewis said that price will also decrease.

"3-D information in general -- looking at structural genomic, for instance -- is really in its infancy in terms of applications for drug discovery," said McCarthy. "Ultimately, you could imagine a time when people would have these types of displays, they would be very common place."

Eventually, Actuality Systems said it could use similar technology to build lightweight versions of the 3-D display that could be marketed to consumers for use with video game consoles, and has plans to begin work on such a display, said Actuality Systems' chief technology officer Gregg Favalora.

"We've thought of that, but it will be several years out before we are able to hook the device up to an XBox or Playstation," he said.

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