Intelligent Machines

Venturing Out

Mitsubishi tests the entrepreneurial waters

Situated in the tony Boston suburbs popular with high-tech firms, the operation might be any startup. Wide-eyed engineers tap feverishly on keyboards, while around them the facilities are still being built. It would be business as usual in the world of startups, except for the name on the front door: Mitsubishi Electric.

It’s an experiment in entrepreneurship American-style-the first for the giant Japanese corporation. Mitsubishi has taken a technology developed at its research lab in Cambridge, Mass., and is attempting to build it into a business, Real Time Visualization. Though wholly owned by Mitsubishi, the outfit runs like a venture-backed startup. This summer the fledgling company made a big splash with the introduction of a computer-graphics first: a product that constructs 3-dimensional images in real time (30 frames per second) using a single custom-designed chip. It uses a type of 3-D graphics, called volume rendering, that has until now been possible only with software running on a powerful workstation or a supercomputer costing tens of thousands of dollars. Real Time Visualization puts its special-purpose chip on a standard PC board that computer system makers can buy for $3,000 to $5,000.

Lots of computer graphics give a 3-D illusion. But peer behind the facade and you come up empty; the computer model typically has no information about the internal structure of the objects it displays so realistically. Volume rendering is different; it displays objects as assemblages of 3-D chunks (called voxels, for volume elements). A volume-rendered representation can be sliced open and examined much as you would a physical object.

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One of the biggest expected applications is medical imaging. The technology makes it possible to produce images of the heart and brain that can be inspected on screen from all angles. Another market should open up soon: Beginning in 2001, federal regulations will require inspection of every piece of luggage checked onboard an airplane (not just carry-ons). A volume rendering computer system will help to examine suspicious bags without opening them.

For now, Mitsubishi is giving Real Time Visualization a long leash. “There’s no control from Japan,” says Steve Sandy, director of business development. General Manager James P. Jacobs reports to a board of directors, much as the CEO of a venture-funded startup would. According to Jacobs, Mitsubishi has allowed the business more freedom than Japanese companies usually permit their divisions. But with independence comes risk. Mitsubishi will fund the operation through 2000, Jacobs says; after that, he projects that sales will make the outfit self-sustaining. If they don’t, he doesn’t expect to go back to the mother ship for more subsidies. “We’ll seek outside investment,” says Jacobs-just like any other U.S. startup.

Although it’s the first venture of its kind for Mitsubishi, it probably won’t be the last. Sandy says the corporate giant is already looking into spinning off outfits to chase high-tech markets in software and Internet telephony.

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