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Imagine being able to reach out and grab some of the 3-D objects you saw in the movie Avatar with your own hands. I recently tried a computer display that offers this sort of interactive experience—albeit on a smaller scale—and I think the technique could have many possible uses.

The “Z Space” display, developed by Californian company Infinite Z, tracks a user’s eye and hand movements and adjusts the 3-D image that he or she sees in real-time. The resulting effect is stunning. Unlike the 3-D video seen in a movie theater or on a 3-D TV, you can move your head around an object—to look it from the side or from below, for instance—and the Z Space display will adapt and show you the correct perspective. 

You still need to wear a special pair of glasses in order to see the 3-D images generated by the display. But the glasses have an additional purpose. As well as showing different images for each eye (to create the illusion of depth perception), they have markers that reflect infrared light. This enables cameras embedded in the display to track the movement of your head (and thus your eyes) as you change your point of view. 

The technique, which the company calls “Virtual Holographic 3-D,” also lets you manipulate virtual objects as if they really were floating just inches in front of you. A special stylus connected to the display also contains sensors that allow its movement to be tracked in three dimensions. You can use the stylus to “grab” parts of the virtual image in front of you and move them around in 3-D space.

After donning the glasses and picking up the stylus, I saw a virtual motorcycle floating about 12 inches in front of me, and I was able to pull off parts of the engine and drop them back in position, or leave them floating in midair. In another demo, I pulled the roof off of a model house and then zoomed through its rooms by setting the path for a virtual camera to take through the model using the stylus.

It’s easy to see how such technology could be very useful for designers, architects, and animators. But with luck, it could also find its way into a few consumer products. The effect would make for an awesome interactive gaming experience, or simply much more realistic and immersive 3-D video. (Of course, it would only work for one viewer.) But still, just imagine being able to physically propel 3-D angry birds at virtual pigs—way more satifying.

Last month Infinite Z created a software development kit (SDK) for its ZSpace displays, which let other companies, as well as independent programmers, create software for it. The display normally costs but $3,995, but if you enroll in the company’s developer program, you can snag one for $1,500.

Here’s a video demo:

zSpace - A Virtual-holographic Experience from zSpace on Vimeo.

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Tagged: Computing, Communications

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