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3D display puts images in the round

Actuality Systems has unveiled a 3D 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. 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 visualise data," said Cameron Lewis, president and chief executive of Actuality Systems.

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.

To demonstrate the capabilities of the Perspecta Spatial 3-D Visualization Platform, Actuality Systems created a military application it called "battlefield visualization". This rendered a helicopter displayed in transparent green lines. Using a joystick, a user was 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 centimetres) 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 two feet in diameter.

Actuality Systems, a start-up firm based in Massachusetts, USA, announced its first customer this week with the launch of version 1.5 of the device, the first commercially available version. The Army Research Lab in 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 US Army, US Department of Defense, NASA and a number of other US government agencies.

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.'s IntelliStation M Pro graphics workstation or a Hewlett-Packard x2100-series workstation and can run Windows and Linux operating systems. The system can also be used with some third-party 3D rendering software used for molecular visualisation 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 components from some unusual sources. 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 the price will decrease.

Eventually, Actuality Systems said it could use similar technology to build lightweight versions of the 3D display that could be marketed to consumers for use with video game consoles. The company already 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 before we are able to hook the device up to an XBox or PlayStation," he said.

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