Newswise — The hyperrealistic three-dimensional display, whether it appears as the holodeck recreational environment in Star Trek or as the flickering holographic SOS sent by Princess Leia via R2D2 in Star Wars, underscores a common assumption about high-end 3-D displays: they're way out in the future. They're not. After decades of less-than-scintillating experiences watching monster movies through flimsy red and blue glasses and playing video games while wrapped in headache-inducing goggles, high-quality 3-D displays that don't require glasses and won't make you queasy are finally here. These so-called volumetric units render images that to the naked eye possess the heft and texture of real objects, and they can be viewed from essentially any angle.
A few small companies are just now emerging to try to carve out for themselves a piece of a market for 3-D displays that could be worth US$1 billion by 2006. The companies are pursuing two main technological approaches to displaying solid images electronically. One is known as swept volume; it uses a high-definition projector or an array of lasers to bounce images off a screen that rotates so fast that the human eye only perceives a 3-D image floating in space. Companies pursuing the swept-volume approach include Genex Technologies, Felix3D, and Actuality Systems.
The other approach, taken by LightSpace Technologies, is an all-solid-state design that uses a projector behind a stack of 20 liquid-crystal projection screens to create solid images from conventional scientific and engineering visualization and design programs. For now, manufacturers are focusing on technical applications that can justify the machines' initially high price of US$50,000.
That means volumetric displays will first pop up to help people engaged in high-stakes endeavors: a doctor guiding a catheter inside a beating heart; a geologist developing plans to extract oil from deep underground reservoirs; a baggage screener looking for knives and bombs in carry-on luggage.
If and when prices come down, all kinds of applications could become possible. Real estate agents would be able to give people walkthroughs of properties anywhere on the planet. A fashion designer tweaking the lines of a new evening gown could edit his creation on the fly and see how variations hang on a virtual model. Serious gamers armed with souped-up 3-D graphics cards would splatter zombies and steal cars in addictively absorbing environments that are likely to make 3-D games played on 2-D monitors seem like creaky old cartoons.