SAN FRANCISCO It looks like the Wicked Witch's crystal ball. Actuality Systems Inc.'s unusual globe-like display renders images that are viewable from any angle, and the company is now trying to conjure interest for its use in medical and molecular modeling applications. It also thinks it can reduce the display's $40,000 cost enough for use in gaming systems. The U.S. Army has also expressed an interest.
Actuality's Perspecta visualization platform relies on software to convert 3-D geometric data into a polar and cylindrical coordinate system to light up 3-D pixels called "voxels" on a projection screen that spins at 600 rpm. The data formatter is a Pentium 4 embedded processor that runs on a Windows NT host, said Gregg Favalora, Actuality's cofounder, chief technology officer and platform architect. The globe's projection mechanism is a variation of Texas Instruments Inc.'s MEMS-based Digital Light Projector. Three-dimensional rectilinear coordinates are converted into polar coordinates for projection on the rounded screen with the help of some 40 spatial rending algorithms and a 1,500-Mips digital signal processor, Favalora said.
Only four Perspecta version 1.5 machines have been built since Actuality was founded in 1997, and each is capable of projecting 100 million voxels per second into a 10-inch globe. A user can walk around the globe to see an object from different angles with all the shading and texturing allowed by a modern graphics engine, but without goggles and with more depth and realism than a traditional 2-D display.
Cameron Lewis, president and chief executive officer of Actuality (Burlington, Mass.), said pharmaceutical companies could use the display to view 3-D molecular models to identify cell structures that need to be isolated or reinforced to develop drugs. The display could also render CAT scans or MRI data, he said. Actuality has announced the U.S. Army's Research Labs in Adelphi, Md. as an early customer. While the Army's application is unknown, Lewis said the Perspecta is capable of simulating helicopter flights over rocky terrain and could aid pilot training.
Actuality Systems has a number of patents pending for its display mechanism, and has to date received $3.8 million in venture funding.
On Actuality's road map for 2003 is a higher refresh rate and a lower cost for the display globe. It will be some time before the 3-D imaging system is accessible to the 3-D computer game market, Lewis said, but the technology is readily accessible and manufacturing costs can be tamed. For example, the covering for the current Perspecta display dome is an explosion-proof glass initially used for street lighting in Germany, but less expensive materials can certainly be harnessed, he said.