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Entering A New Dimension

If the notion of 3-D makes you think of wearing funny glasses at Walt Disney World, you're about to get a surprise. Technology that creates lifelike three-dimensional images is the most exciting new feature in personal computing. But if you rush to shell out $250 to $350 for the 3-D hardware-software packages that will hit the stores soon, be ready to do it over again in a year or so when some format conflicts get sorted out.

What is a 3-D display? Artists discovered how to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface 500 years ago. But no matter how realistic a 2-D rendering looks on the screen, it's still like a theater "flat"; if you look around the back, nothing is there. By contrast, a 3-D object is fully rounded. Rotate it on the screen and another side comes into view, with realistic contours and modeling of light and shadow.

UPGRADE TIME. Realism requires millions of computations, which has limited the production of 3-D graphics--for the movies, medicine, and other uses--to high-end workstations. Even today's speedy Pentiums can't do the job alone. Instead, they will rely on a new generation of display adapters, called 3-D accelerators. The new equipment will enable desktop computers to take a video image and "map" it to fit a three-dimensional shape. One result: photorealistic animated figures instead of cartoons in computer games.

For most people, the initial uses of 3-D will be for games, and for the foreseeable future, creating those images will be the province of skilled computer programmers. Don't plan on playing these computer games on your old standby: At a minimum, Macintosh owners will need a machine with the new PowerPC chip, and Windows fans will need a Pentium machine with Windows 95 and plenty of memory.

Spending $1,500 to replace your 386 becomes even more intimidating when you realize that compatibility is not a high priority for developers of the new 3-D products. The manufacturers of new display adapters are pursuing different technologies, and software written for one won't work on any of the others.

Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. is about to ship its Diamond Edge 3-D board in October. The device, starting at around $250, uses the NVIDIA NV1 chip. Creative Labs will be out in November with the $350 3-D Blaster. At the heart of the Creative board is the new GLINT processor being developed by Creative and 3Dlabs Inc. Early next year, Number Nine Visual Technology Corp. will ship a 3-D accelerator built around the Rendition Inc. Verite chip. Similar products are in the works. All will include an assortment of multimedia games.

QUICKDRAW. Each of these companies is hoping to be the one that will define the 3-D graphics standard for Windows 95, and each company claims extensive support from major industry players. Unfortunately for consumers, this will probably mean a period of chaos. Something similar happened a few years ago when sound first appeared for PCs. Until Creative Lab's Sound Blaster emerged as the de facto standard, a sound-enhanced program might or might not work with a particular sound card.

In the Mac world, where Apple Computer Inc. controls the standards, things are much simpler. Apple's QuickDraw, a library of software routines that developers can use to create 3-D images on Power Macs, is available for free download on the Web (http://www.apple.com), along with demonstration software. Apple is counting on the PowerPC chip, rather than a graphics accelerator, to get 3-D images to the screen.

Hardware makers hope Microsoft Corp. will define a standard in a future version of Windows 95--and hope it will favor their technology. Hard-core gamers will want the latest technology as soon as it hits the stores. But most of us would probably do well to wait until a clear standard emerges. Remember Betamax vs. VHS?

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