Visual Computing Will Change Your Life

New 3D technology enables scientists to test pharmaceuticals and convenience store chains to check Snickers' inventory, but not everyone is ready for the changeand expense

Remember when your computer screen looked flat, filled with boring old letters and numbers, when your info-tech life was about nothing more than e-mail, word processing, and spreadsheets?

Now it's about YouTube (GOOG) and iTunes (AAPL), video and audio, movies and music, 3D living color and surround sound. How ironic that while your computer is working harder, you're not. The complexity under the hood is rising while your controls are simplifying to the computing equivalent of a key, a steering wheel, and a few pedals. You press one button, and hundreds of parallel graphics computing cores produce the effect of vastly detailed 3D worlds.

The great visual computing era is upon us, and almost everyone is at least partially aware of it. But some groups are getting more out of the new computing paradigm than others. Among the haves are consumers, who only a few years ago were typing text into this window and that dialogue box but are now increasingly selecting a big button with a one-thumb-controlled remote and launching a movie. Tada! Done. The least IT-savvy segment of computer buyers, consumers are extracting the most value from computer technology.

Another group has long understood the value of 3D computing: graphical workstation users. Indeed, the folks who design airplanes, search for oil deposits, and create new drugs have been hip to 3D for years.

In the old days, a designer working on an airplane wing handed a bunch of punch cards to the computer operator and waited a week to get back thousands of numbers on fanfold paper. Today all those complex data are represented as a picture of the airplane wing showing, in 3D color, the flows under various conditions. Viewers can rotate the image in real time. The engineer can tweak a parameter to see how it affects the entire design.

The oil and gas driller can send seismic waves miles under the sea floor, gather the echoes, and deduce whether petroleum might exist there. Used by all the major oil companies, programs like GeoProbe from Halliburton (HAL) subsidiary Landmark produce clear 3D images of rock structures under the seabed. The software does just about everything but yell "Drill there!"

Researchers can use 3D computing to run simulations of pharmaceutical compounds. The technology quickly eliminates combinations that won't work, saving scientists' time.

And 3D graphical computing has begun trickling down to more ordinary commercial applications. Small architecture shops can afford hardware and software that allow them to assess the engineering issues associated with that cantilevered addition the client is contemplating. Interior designers can take their clients on a 3D walk-through of the whole house. Real estate salespeople can show the buyer a property from all angles, inside and out, from a laptop in the car as they peruse properties.

Nonetheless, while virtually all consumers and some specialty types in the commercial world inherently "get" 3D computing, mainstream commercial users—many of whom are using ancient applications on tired old hardware—are still largely out of the loop. Most businesses run simple character-oriented programs, software that handles letters and numbers, rather than the large graphical or video files associated with 3D computing. For example, banks run on homegrown programs or commercial software created by companies like CSC. Since these systems are designed with security as job one, they tend to run on mainframes and employ older architectures. But even banks are facing a world in which hard-to-assess data are piling up. Visualization could help detect patterns like unusual cash-management behavior on the part of a particular individual or a whole demographic, allowing the bank to intervene.

A trio of 3D-enabling applications for transforming almost any ordinary business come to mind: large data-set visualization, videoconferencing, and on-demand video.

I think of large data-set visualization as a "Fly Through My Empire" application. For example, a large convenience store chain can see inventory levels of goods visible at the national, regional, state, local, and store levels. You spin a scroll wheel to fly in and out of the map. Red, yellow, and green lights represent the state of each supply level. A manager can see patterns quickly. Are the problems all in the Southeast? Is one manager responsible for all the trouble? Pick up the phone and call that guy!

IBM (IBM) offers a similar capability in a 3D medical information application called Medical Information Hub. Implemented by Thy-Mors and Aalborg Hospitals in Denmark, it maps patient records onto a representation of the human body so doctors can click on a body part and see related links, including descriptions, published papers, common diseases, treatments, and sometimes even the patient’s related history.

Videoconferencing can substitute for travel, saving expenses. But really good high-definition videoconferencing still costs a bundle. Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) Halo and Cisco's (CSCO) TelePresence offer whole-room solutions that run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Procter & Gamble (PG), HSBC (HBC), Wachovia, SAP (SAP), and McKesson (MCK) are among the companies using TelePresence. Halo users include DreamWorks (DWA), AMD (AMD), and AIG (AIG). As bandwidth improves in general, and HP, Cisco, and others bring the cost and scope of the technology down, this ready-made application will grow more popular. Cisco already offers what it calls a "personal" version of TelePresence.

On-demand video refers to companies' use of video for general communications. For example, when a person browsing the company Web site clicks on a link, up pops a video rather than a text document. True, easier-to-use tools for creating and publishing video would help with adoption, but companies can get started with this type of programming with today's technology. Multicast, based in Atlanta, offers complete video systems and hosting services. Users include Coca Cola (KO), Prudential Georgia Realty, and The Knot.

A few obstacles keep mainstream commercial companies from joining the video revolution. First, 3D video and graphics still require the latest equipment, beefed up to the highest specification. Second, bandwidth is critical. You'll need at least 2 Mbps, and many parts of the U.S. infrastructure remain below that. Third, much of the best technology is still devilishly expensive. And then there's inertia: Many companies see no need or can't figure out where they fit in this new world.

Fortunately, costs are coming down, bandwidth is improving, and the public is beginning to understand the power of 3D. The change is inevitable. Don't be the last to figure it out.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.