Start-up gazes into crystal ball for 3D display

A new 3D display from start-up Actuality, which has just signed its first customer, may look futuristic - but the concept dates from the 1960s

The ideal computer display of today may be flat, but a start-up called Actuality Systems has gazed into the future, and what it has seen looks more like a crystal ball.

The Burlington, Massachussetts company, founded in 1997, has been perfecting a type of 3D display with a basketball-sized glass dome that connects to an ordinary workstation to display 3D models and animations. On Tuesday the firm announced its first customer, the Adelphi, Maryland-based US Army Research Laboratory, which carries out research for the US army, the Department of Defence, NASA and other government bodies.

Actuality's Perspecta display platform currently costs $40,000 (£28,000) and up, but the company says costs could drop until the device is affordable for ordinary users and gamers. "Component costs will decrease," said Actuality chief technology officer and co-founder Gregg Favalora. "There could be a desktop unit in the future."

The model sold to the army lab is mounted on a stabilised rolling platform, which bears the display and an IBM workstation, along with a retractible keyboard, joystick and flat-panel display. The display has its own built-in Spatial Rendering Kernel, which is designed around open standards such as Open GL. This allows it to interact with mainstream applications running on Windows or Linux platforms.

Favalora would not comment on the applications the army lab will use the display for, but the company said the display would be evaluated for command and control and field operations.

The 3D mechanism behind Perspecta goes back to the 1960s, but had to wait for high-resolution processing and display technology caught up. Perspecta uses a collection of proprietary algorithms to slice 3D data into a format that can be replicated in three spatial dimensions. A projector then displays the data at 5,000 frames per second onto a rotating screen within the transparent sphere, in such a way that the eye sees a 3D image.

The image is comprised of 198 two-dimensional slices, with a 768 x 768 pixel resolution for each slice. The image is displayed using a Texas Instruments 1600 MIPS digital signal processor with a 24Hz volume refresh.

Each 10-inch-diameter image contains 100 million "volume pixels", or "voxels", according to Actuality, and can be viewed from any angle. Other systems either generate a 2D rendering of a 3D image, or require stereoscopic goggles to translate the display into what appears to be 3D. Actuality is initially targeting the pharmaceuticals industry, where researchers need to see the interactions of 3D models in designing and manufacturing drugs.

It will be a while before such technology is suitable for mass-market use, however. Besides the high cost of building a Perspecta, display technology needs to improve; at present, full-resolution images are only displayed in eight colours, and brightness and contrast could be improved, Favalora said.

And for some uses, such as displaying the types of holographic images seen in 1977's Star Wars, computing technology itself will have to make advances. "The industry is still a little ways off from full-motion 3D movies," Favalora said.

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