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See Inside June 2007

Seeing Triple

Anticipated for decades, machines are finally displaying real objects in three true dimensions

Inventors have struggled for years to create displays that can conjure vivid three-dimensional images that users can manipulate and interact with. Chemists could exploit such marvels to design new drug molecules. Oil and gas explorers could see exactly where to aim their drills. Surgeons could pass probes or radiation beams through the collated slices of diagnostic data produced by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) machines to test procedures before performing an operation. But shortcomings such as a flickering image, a narrow angle of view or the need to wear special glasses have bedeviled the devices.

Two companies have recently mixed their own technology with off-the-shelf components, including the Digital Light Processor (DLP) chip from Texas Instruments, to create interactive systems called 3-D volumetric displays that overcome these limitations. The two firms' products are just now transitioning from the laboratory to commercial models.

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