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3D Projection Without the Glasses
by Leander Kahney

12:50 p.m. Nov. 17, 2000 PST

LAS VEGAS -- Perhaps the most exciting technology at Comdex this year was a 3D display that projected volumetric images into thin air, prompting show goers to gasp, burst out laughing and run around the booth in excitement.

At the back of one of the exhibit halls, Dimensional Media set up a booth full of 3D displays that projected images -- of objects such as cell phones or soda cans -- into space in front of the viewer.

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The effect was not unlike the famous special effect in Star Wars where R2D2 projects a holographic display. But unlike R2D2's grainy video, the images at Comdex were often as vivid and concrete as real objects.

And unlike most other 3D displays, Dimensional Media's does not require special glasses or any kind of headgear.

"It's magic," said Anna Zharkova, an event manager from Russia, who was running around the booth like a headless chicken. "I cannot believe it. It's just magic."

Her colleague, Natasya Savina, said: "I think it is incredible. I never thought at this exhibition to see something so wondrous. Everything is quite common. But this is so new, so amazing. Next year, I would like to use it for myself so that my image can be at the booth, and I can be somewhere else."

Dimensional Media, which is based in New York, originally developed the technology for the military with funding from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The military wanted a true, volumetric 3D display that didn't require special glasses or complex electronics.

The simplest version of the technology is based on a system of mirrors and lenses. The object whose image is being projected sits inside a pedestal, which projects the object's light into space above the pedestal, where the image is reformed. The effect is as if the object itself is hovering above the pedestal's surface.

The company also demonstrated video versions of the technology, which projected video images in 3D.

The Russians played with a 3D teller-machine whose buttons floated in space in front off the viewer. To activate the system's virtual "buttons," the viewer simply pointed a finger at the image of the button. The system uses a grid of infrared lights -- similar to systems in stores that beep when a shopper enters -- to calculate the position of the viewer's finger.

Dimensional Media said its images are already starting to turn up in advertising displays at shopping malls and airports around the world, and they should become quite common this year as more and more are installed.

"We are really starting to sell these systems," said CEO Daniel Pfeffer.

Dimensional Media said the company will start testing the first volumetric 3D computer monitor early next year, which it hopes to sell to medical providers, the military and CAD/CAM companies.

Pfeffer said for the first time, the display will give viewers full "look around" of a projected image.

"I could project the image of your face and have full look-around, like you were really in front of me," he said.

As an example of its use, Pfeffer said the monitor could project X-Ray or NMR data in 3D, creating a precise image of the inside of a patient's skull and the location of, say, a tumor. The display could then overlay another image onto the patient's actual skull, showing the surgeon the exact place to cut.

"It's the most unbelievable technology," he said.

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