Pushing the Envelope of 3D

Shanna Tellerman and the business she founded stand out in an economy where venture funding is hard to come by. In March the 28-year-old entrepreneur's startup closed a $3 million round of funding led by Korean telecommunications giant SK Telecom.

Sim Ops Studios, founded by Tellerman in 2006, is among three finalists in BusinessWeek.com's annual Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs showcase that specialize in 3D, underscoring the growing emphasis on technology that lets companies and consumers view and manipulate images in three dimensions. San Francisco's Sim Ops, spun off from Carnegie Mellon University, makes tools that let users build 3D renderings of auto parts, molecules, and games that can be viewed and played through any Web site.

Why the hubbub now? Companies have been working on 3D browsers, games, and software tools for years. Many of those experiments failed. But 3D tech is gaining currency in recent years with advances in hardware that make even low-end laptops capable of handling the sophisticated graphics and processing required by 3D applications.

Whimsy on a Desktop

In past years, many 3D applications could run mainly on supercomputers or high-end gaming PCs, and the market was tiny. But today, even mobile devices, including the Apple (AAPL) iPhone, can handle 3D features; wireless networks are more adept at delivering the rich graphics they entail. "While before, [3D] might have been a niche, now it's applicable to everybody," says Ben Bajarin, a strategist at consultancy Creative Strategies. "We are definitely in a shift to a more visual computing experience."

BumpTop wants to help make computing more visual with software that transforms the Microsoft (MSFT) Windows desktop into a whimsical virtual room. "The desktop is the base of the computer, and it hasn't really changed in the last 20 to 30 years," says CEO Anand Agarawala, 27, another of the finalists. "I really wanted to shake things up." Released on Apr. 8, BumpTop's 3D desktop software has been downloaded more than 300,000 times. With BumpTop, you can stick Post-it notes with reminders to the back wall and group photos, documents, and Web pages into piles, as you would on an actual desk. "When I saw BumpTop's demonstration in 2006, I was jealous," says Andy Hertzfeld, an investor in BumpTop who was one of the key developers of Apple's Macintosh software. "3D is in most computers, but [it is] unexploited by productivity applications." BumpTop closed a $1 million funding round in December.

Some of tech's biggest companies, including Microsoft, Google (GOOG), and Intel (INTC), are making a push into technology that will make the Web more three-dimensional. On Apr. 8, chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) released a test version of Fusion Media Explorer that lets users browse photos, Web pages, music, and TV shows by scrolling through a 3D wall. In March, software maker Mozilla started an industry group that includes Google and is working on tools that would let browser users more easily view 3D content on Web pages. The capabilities should make it into the new version of Mozilla's Firefox browser due out this summer, says Vladimir Vukicevic, principal engineer at Mozilla. "After we get these baseline capabilities, that's when we'll see things take off," he says.

Soon an Integral Part of Web Browsing

Early iterations of the 3D Internet have been a hit. Virtual world Second Life, created by Linden Lab, hosts 1 million users a month, up from 544,313 a year ago.

Cooliris makes software that lets users view photos, video, and Web pages in 3D. "We solve the problem of navigating large amounts of content," says co-founder Austin Shoemaker, 25, who is also among the Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs finalists. The free Cooliris iPhone app has been downloaded 800,000 times since last fall. The company also makes versions for PC browsers. In March, the Cooliris software was used to display baby pictures on the TV talk show Live with Regis and Kelly. Earlier this month, Cooliris closed a $15.5 million round of funding headed by Kleiner Perkins.

As it invades the browser and the desktop, within three to five years, 3D could become an integral part of the Web experience, says Paul Jackson, principal analyst at consultant Forrester Research (FORR). "Ultimately, we'll have an element of 3D in all of transactional Web sites, reference sites, gaming, and entertainment," Jackson says. Mouse and keyboard, which "are not ideal for navigating 3D," may be replaced by touch and Nintendo Wii-like motion controls, or even 3D head displays, he says.

Another challenge is figuring out ways to make money from the 3D Web. BumpTop charges $29 for its premium edition; in the future, the company may sell additional virtual meeting rooms or extra storage. Meanwhile, Sim Ops plans to make money off virtual goods, such as weapons, that game developers can sell to players. "We are taking what [virtual world] Second Life has done, but flipping it inside out," Tellerman says. Instead of going into a separate world to let 3D flourish, her company is taking 3D onto the World Wide Web.

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