Red troops poured across the Czech border last November, trying to capture Germany. In the counterattack, U.S. Air Force Captain Reid D. Reasor flew an F-16 out of Ramstein Air Force Base, dropping cluster bombs on bridges, bunkers, and Red regiments. "You got sweat beading up on your forehead," he recalls. "You could hear anxiety in your wingman's voice when you got separated."
Pretty exciting--for a battle that never happened. Reasor spent the whole time inside a 3-D flight simulator in Mesa, Ariz. As he looked out the "canopy" of his F-16, computers worked furiously to generate the passing view of European rivers, hills, and towns. The Army-led exercise connected more than 300 sites, ranging from submarine simulators in Newport, R.I., to infantry simulators in Grafenwuhr, Germany.
The key to the biggest military simulation ever was 3-D computing. Simulations in three dimensions are a cheap, safe supplement to conventional exercises in a time of budget austerity. The Defense Dept. plans an even larger video war game for 1997.
You don't have to work at the Pentagon to appreciate 3-D computing. It's pervading the civilian realm as well. Just a few of the fields expanding their horizons through 3-D vision: medicine, oil exploration, product design, and architecture--not to mention video games, advertising, and movies. While there's no good estimate of the overall 3-D market size, just look at Silicon Graphics Inc. SGI, the premier maker of 3-D computer workstations, has more than tripled its revenue since 1991, to $2.2 billion in the year ended June 30.
People who want to try 3-D out for themselves need go no further than the local toy store or computer dealer. Nintendo, Sega Enterprises, Sony, and others are relying on dazzling 3-D effects to stimulate sales of a new generation of high-powered game machines. And 3-D games are coming to the home personal computer as well, thanks to 3-D graphics boards from the likes of Creative Technology, 3Dlabs, 3Dfx Interactive, and NVIDIA.
Today's 3-D is a new variation on a familiar theme: ever more powerful and cheaper computers. The fanfold paper printouts of yesteryear gave way to screens with monochrome text, followed by windowing software and simple graphics. Now, the windows are being thrown open. "3-D was always seen as a very specialized, high-cost option, like an expensive spice from China. That day is passing fast," says Dan Mapes, president of SynergyLabs, based in San Francisco, which created special effects for the new science-fiction movie Virtuosity. Mapes does all his effects on a network of Pentium-based PCs. Says Mapes: "We think of 3-D as simply the highest-quality way of transmitting information from one mind to another."
That's exactly why 3-D computing is so important. The brain absorbs three-dimensional information like a sponge: We've been doing it since birth. Italian painters realized that as long ago as the 15th century, when they added perspective to their paintings, aided by the geometrical insights of Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi. He, in turn, had simply rediscovered the classical Romans' "vanishing point"--that faraway spot in a scene at which all parallel lines seem to converge. Today, computers make it possible to step inside those perspective images and look around--say, wander around a virtual piazza and look back at the way you came in. Says Edward R. McCracken, Silicon Graphics' chairman and ceo: "Someday, all computers will be a window into three-dimensional space."
SMOOTH SAILING. 3-D computing isn't limited to virtual reality, whose devotees dress up in goggles and gloves to immerse themselves in an artificial environment. Most people who do 3-D computing aren't interested in total immersion--just added insight.
These are early days for 3-D. Even the fastest workstations require hours to render a single complex, high-quality image using 3-D tools--say, one frame of an animated movie. But that limitation is a good sign: If people use 3-D now, despite the inconvenience, imagine how much they'll use it when computers are vastly more powerful in 5 or 10 years.
Look how they're using it already. New Zealand sailed off with the Americas Cup this year with the help of a "digital wind tunnel"--a Silicon Graphics workstation next to the docks in San Diego that allowed its team to analyze nearly 10,000 design variations in two months. In Japan, contractors mounted twin camera "eyes" on unmanned bulldozers last year, producing 3-D displays that let them remotely control the earth movers as they cleared land around the Unzen Fugendake Mountain volcano. In the ultimate confirmation of its hipness, 3-D made its debut this year on the World Wide Web. Instead of pages, people are building "rooms" occupied by 3-D objects--finally adding spaciousness to cyberspace.
The high sales volumes generated by video-game technology are driving down the price of 3-D equipment, and this summer's new 3-D products for home computers should accelerate the trend. These accelerator chips cost PC and board makers $30 to $40 apiece, one-fifth the price of their cheapest predecessors, says Jon Peddie Associates of Tiburon, Calif. There's still a market for the $150-and-up chips--mainly in design and engineering, where geometric accuracy is paramount. 3-D chips are becoming widely available. While giants such as Digital Equipment Corp. make them in-house, smaller designers hire any of several companies for fabrication.
Plunging prices will, in turn, expand the ways businesses can speed analysis and design to lower costs. Voith Hydro Inc. of York, Pa., uses 3-D computational fluid dynamics software in place of scale models to test the efficiency of small turbines that it sells to hydroelectric power plants. That substitution is a huge savings, since physical models cost $500,000 apiece to build and test. The software isn't accurate enough yet to supplant models for big hydropower turbines, but it helps engineers build models that require fewer costly tweaks, says Richard A. Fisher Jr., vice-president for technology. 3-D software also produces ideas for better designs--crucial, Fisher says, since a 0.1% efficiency gain can be worth $1 million to a customer.
For scientists, the appeal of 3-D is the stimulation it provides for their imaginations. James Watson and Francis Crick tinkered with balls and sticks to figure out the helical structure of DNA. With computers, the toying is orders of magnitude more sophisticated. A good example is X-ray crystallography, a procedure for figuring out the placement of atoms in large molecules. Computers can make a rough guess based on the pattern made by the rays deflected off a crystallized molecule. But to get the positioning exactly right, scientists like to use a very special computer: the visual cortex of their own brains. Wearing virtual-reality goggles and gloves, they go "inside" a 3-D molecule model and rearrange the atoms by hand until the model fits the data.
Surgeons like 3-D for similar reasons. In the 1930s, radiologists created 3-D images by crossing their eyes as they looked at two offset X-rays of the same object. Now, computers do the job for them, using data not only from X-rays but also from magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography.
"BRIEFCASE HIT." 3-D is so newly practical that many people who could benefit from it still aren't. Most architects still prefer to deal with 2-D blueprints and cardboard mockups--arguing that computers spoil the design process. A few are catching on, though. Seattle-based Callison Architecture Inc. uses 3-D not only for design but also for videotaped animations that give such clients as Boeing, Microsoft, and Eddie Bauer a feel for what a new building will be like. Says James P. Rothwell, a Callison principal: "Clients love to show these videos around. They become a briefcase hit."
New applications are heating up the battle for supremacy in 3-D space. Microsoft is making 3-D a priority. Last year, it bought Montreal-based SoftImage, one of the main suppliers of software for high-end special effects in movies and TV commercials. While SoftImage currently runs on Silicon Graphics machines, Microsoft is making it run on PCs that use the Windows NT operating system as well. Microsoft has also snagged a small British company called RenderMorphics, giving it what is likely to become the programmer's standard for creating PC-based video games.
Quietly, Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III has assembled what University of Utah computer scientist Richard F. Riesenfeld calls "the largest collection of graphics talent under one roof in the world." James T. Kajiya, hired from the California Institute of Technology last year, is working on a new standard for fast, cheap 3-D software and hardware aimed at consumers. Another hire, Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of computer animator Pixar Corp., says he has wanted for years to pull together sound, pictures, and animation into one easy-to-use package. "Nobody was big enough to pull it off," he says. "I think Microsoft might be."
Besides Microsoft, giants taking aim at the high end of 3-D computing include Sun Microsystems, king of the Internet; Hewlett-Packard, with new graphics accelerators; DEC; and IBM, which is encouraging Hollywood animators to rent processing time on its giant SP2 supercomputer in Maui, Hawaii.
REARGUARD ACTION. For now, Mountain View (Calif.)-based Silicon Graphics is raking in money and riding high. Taking advantage of its lofty share price, SGI used $500 million in stock last February to snap up two premier software companies, Alias Research Inc. and Wavefront Technologies Inc. In May, it agreed to develop a computer animation system jointly with DreamWorks SKG, the "Dream Team" of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen.
Still, Silicon Graphics feels the heat. Its acquisition of Alias and Wavefront appears less a bold move than a rearguard action to make sure those companies' programs don't migrate to cheaper machines, as SoftImage soon will. Avram Miller, Intel Corp.'s vice-president for corporate development, warns that Silicon Graphics could find itself stranded in a high-end niche with expensive, nonstandard hardware, as happened a decade ago to Digital Equipment Corp. "This is DEC in 1985," Miller argues. "Once this thing starts coming apart, it comes apart pretty quick."
Silicon Graphics CEO McCracken vows not to let that happen. He's trying to get as many manufacturers as possible to adopt the company's chip design, called MIPS. Two high-volume wins: Sony's PlayStation uses a MIPS design from LSI Logic Corp., and SGI designed a MIPS-based chip for Nintendo's Ultra 64. McCracken isn't worried about Microsoft for the next four to six years, which he says is as far out as he can project. "Let Microsoft and their partners sell a few million units," he says. "More people will know how to program in 3-D."
He has a point. In these early days of the 3-D boom, demand is growing at such a rapid pace that plenty of suppliers should be able to make a buck off the third dimension.
Plenty already are. Autodesk Inc., the maker of computer-aided design software for PCs, has become a major force by opening up its 3D Studio entertainment software to makers of "plug-ins"--software modules for special effects for movies and commercials such as sepia tones, fog, or bubbles. MultiGen Inc. specializes in extra-fast rendering of 3-D for video games and flight simulators--where there's no time to create each frame in lifelike detail. Its software draws the buildings that people "fly" over on a carpet in Walt Disney Co.'s knockout new Aladdin attraction at Epcot Center.
QUANTUM LEAP. 3-D is generating new business opportunities for smart companies such as Viewpoint DataLabs Inc. in Orem, Utah. Viewpoint builds everything from helicopters to body parts out of "wireframes," which look like chicken-wire sculptures and are easy to manipulate by computer. The digital prop house sells these 3-D objects to moviemakers, the military, and others. Viewpoint made the skeleton on the first page of this article and programmed it to throw a baseball by copying the arm motions of human volunteers. A moviemaker could simply dress the skeleton in cyberflesh and a baseball uniform.
The next step beyond viewing 3-D images on flat screens is stereoscopy--as in the 3-D glasses for 1950s horror movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon. Stereoscopy mimics the real world, in which people gauge distance by the way their two eyes see the same object from different angles. Today's virtual-reality goggles are a quantum leap beyond the colored cellophane lenses of the 1950s. Says Linden Rhoads, president of Seattle-based goggles maker Virtual i-O: "Stereoscopy is just much more compelling--the same as we like talking films more than silent ones and color films more than black-and-white."
Goggles are a bit cumbersome, though, and certain poorly designed ones can cause side effects ranging from headaches to disorientation. That's why inventors around the world are racing to develop displays that produce two different eye views without glasses. Australian inventor Donald Martin has one involving vertical bars that whiz by in front of the screen. Last year, the U.S. Navy revealed that it can create 3-D images by firing 40,000 laser beams into something that looks like a round, transparent washing machine, complete with a spiral-shaped agitator. Sharp Laboratories of Europe Ltd. has built a prototype 3-D display that remotely senses the viewer's head movements and reacts by moving lenses to change the scene presented to each eye.
Holography is advancing as a 3-D medium, too, and not just as the pigeon on your credit card. Holograms can now be made in full, natural color, thanks to a 1992 breakthrough by Hans I. Bjelkhagen. In his new job as vice-president for research and development at American Propylaea Corp. in Birmingham, Mich., the Swedish researcher is working to make his full-color holograms bigger, brighter, and viewable from more angles.
Today's 3-D is miles beyond what was possible in the 1960s, when the most sophisticated computer graphics in the world were being done in Salt Lake City. The University of Utah became a mecca thanks to faculty members David Evans and Ivan E. Sutherland. Those two later founded Evans & Sutherland Computer Corp., which remains No.1 in software for flight simulators. Utah alumni include Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics; John E. Warnock, founder of Adobe Systems; Alan Kay, principal scientist of Apple Computer; Alan Ashton, founder of WordPerfect; and Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar with Alvy Ray Smith.
TRUE LOVE. Computer memory in those early days was insufficient to hold animation, so programmers stored images directly onto film. To capture a frame, they would keep the camera shutter open as the computer generated the image, line by line. Since the screen was monochrome, they had to do multiple passes with filters to get color images. That took true love. Henry C. Christiansen, a Brigham Young University professor who did his research at Utah, says they borrowed the studio of the Mormon Church to make "movies" of such things as the vibration and flutter of experimental NASA aircraft. Says Christiansen: "I used to work all night, until my programs crashed."
Creating good 3-D still is no snap, but lots more tools and building blocks exist. If photorealism is the object, artists can create reflections by letting the computer calculate the paths of light rays. They can also add "radiosity," so a hand next to a bright yellow car will pick up a yellow glow. If speed is the object, forget computation-intensive tricks like radiosity. The processor in a shoot-'em-up video game is busy just trying to redraw tanks and missiles 30 to 60 times a second. Video-game programmers try to retain a respectable degree of realism while staying within the all-important "polygon count"--the maximum number of geometric shapes that the processor can draw per second. One shortcut is to compensate for the lack of detail with "texture maps"--2-D pictures that are pasted onto the sides of polygons.
As people embrace 3-D, they must also understand its limitations. Computer simulations, no matter how seemingly accurate, are not replicas of reality. Case in point: When Boeing Co. engineers probed the 1992 crash of an El Al Israel Airlines 747 cargo flight that slammed into low-income housing in the Netherlands, killing 43 people, they discovered that their finite element analysis stress simulation had not been detailed enough. It had missed several weak points in the design of a "fuse pin" that held the engines to the wings. One fuse pin broke, and the plane went into a fatal dive. A similar simulation flaw led to the sinking of a huge oil platform in a Norwegian fjord in 1991.
Sometimes, 3-D pictures end up just being confusing. Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Richland, Wash., found that out when researchers wrote a data-visualization program called Galaxies. Each document was characterized by a point, or "star." You could tell how similar documents were by how closely the stars clustered on a 2-D chart. The system worked fine until the lab added another variable. When users put on VR goggles to explore the proximity of stars in three dimensions, they became disoriented--"lost in space," says staff scientist James A. Wise. The lab has had better luck with another program, Themescape, that portrays data as hills and valleys.
Like no other field of computing, 3-D hits people in the gut. Just ask the kids from Orville Wright Magnet School in Los Angeles, who got a preview of Nintendo's 3-D Virtual Boy at a trade show last May. Their one complaint was that the $180 machine only displays red on black. Wrote middle-schooler Aja Thrasher: "It would really be Da Bomb if you are able to make this in color." When it comes to 3-D, everybody's got something to say.
A NEW WAY OF SEEING
The possibilities of 3-D, still in its infancy, are just beginning to take shape. But it's already turning up in a wide range of applications
-- MEDICINE Yellow blobs in a CAT scan image from Elscint represent calcifications on the aorta, which carries blood from the heart.
-- MOVIES/ADVERTISING Industrial Light & Magic created 43 minutes of 3-D computer animation for Casper. Objects behind the ghosts are distorted, adding to the illusion.
-- GAMES Players maneuver Egghead Shred by wearing sensors and making skiing motions. Dallas-based Paradigm Simulations created the game as an offshoot of defense work.
-- ENGINEERING Software from Intergraph shows the pipes beneath a ship's deck. If the ship's design changes, the piping routes are automatically
-- MILITARY Twelve video images are projected inward onto a faceted dome in a new generation of cheaper, more lifelike flight simulators.
-- SCIENCE A red-and-yellow enzyme surrounds and snips a blue double helix of DNA in a model from calculations by the University of Pittsburgh's John Rosenberg.
-- DATA VISUALIZATION Themescape software from Pacific Northwest Laboratories highlights connections between documents by graphing the frequency of overlap between words used.
FLIGHT OF THE SYNTHETIC BUMBLEBEE
Here's how graphic artist Alan Henry built and flew a bee, using a Commodore Amiga computer and Imagine software from Impulse Inc.
1 Henry picks some building blocks, known as wireframes, which are made from tiny triangles
2 He reshapes the building blocks into bee parts
3 Then he assembles the parts, including joints so the wings can flap
4 He sets an overhead view "flight plan" for the bee and decides where the flight will be viewed from (camera, lower right)
5 He brings the bee alive by choosing its colors, texture, reflectiveness, and transparency
DATA: 3D MODELING LAB BY PHILIP SHADDOCK, WAITE GROUP PRESS, 1994
WHO'S WHO IN THE THIRD DIMENSION
A sample of the major players
SILICON GRAPHICS (SGI) The premier maker of workstations for 3-D imagery in engineering, entertainment, and other fields. Challenged on all fronts.
MICROSOFT (MSFT) The software giant has pegged 3-D as a growth market; wants to seize leadership of software-writing "tools" from SGI.
AUTODESK (ACAD) The top maker of 3-D design software for personal computers has successfully branched into effects for movies and commercials.
MACNEAL-SCHWENDLER (MNS) Makes industrial-strength 3-D software for engineers that runs on machines ranging up to supercomputers. Focuses more on accurate modeling than on glitzy display.
INDUSTRIAL LIGHT & MAGIC Off the beaten track in Marin County, Calif., but the undisputed leader in 3-D effects for movies, with credits such as Jurassic Park and Casper.
EVANS & SUTHERLAND (ESCC) The original 3-D company started by building flight simulators. Now it also sells 3-D accelerator chips to the likes of Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.
SEGA (SEGNY) Leaped ahead of Nintendo with the Japanese debut of its 3-D game machine, Saturn. But Nintendo, Sony, Atari, and 3DO are in the race.