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Monitor turns satellite images into 3D models

Unlike other systems, this three-dimensional monitor requires special glasses, but headaches are less of a problem, company claims. Photo: Planar's display

If you need to view aerial photographs in 3D and have $3,995, Planar Systems has the monitor for you.

The company's SD1710 consists of two monitors placed at a 110-degree angle separated by a piece of polarized glass. The glass lets the image from the bottom monitor pass through and it reflects the image from the top monitor. A person wearing special glasses gets an accurate, three-dimensional representation of digital photographs without the jagged edges, blurriness or other visual artifacts that can occur with competing technologies, according to the company.

Planar's 3D monitor

By transforming flat photos into a 3D image, areas obscured by shadows can become easier to interpret, said Scott Robinson, a research scientist at Planar. With this, Robinson said, an intelligence operative could orchestrate a flight plan for a ground-hugging missile, or relief agencies could get more accurate visuals for levee breaches in New Orleans.

Technically, the images aren't 3D, but the brain thinks they are. A computer grabs one image, designated for the right eye, and pairs it with a similar image taken from a slightly different angle and sends it to the left eye. Because the perspective from each eye is slightly different, the brain thinks it is looking into three-dimensional space rather than at a flat image, and it processes accordingly.

Most cameras on satellites and planes aren't stereo cameras. Instead, they are simply ordinary cameras that take a succession of pictures. Still, even if the satellite has moved 20 miles or the airplane a few miles, successive images can be woven together through various software packages from companies such as DAT/EM Systems International to make a 3D image, said Robinson.

Unlike other recent 3D monitors, such as the ones from Sharp, the Planar system requires glasses. Systems that don't require glasses force a person to keep his or her head a specific distance away from the monitor. Glasses essentially give the person greater freedom of movement.

Planar's system also gets rid of the nauseating screen flicker common with CRT-based stereoscopic monitors, the company claims. In the CRT system, the monitor toggles rapidly between the images for the right eye and the left eye. The effect leads to a composite 3D image, but it can give people headaches.

"There are some people who get literally sick after 15 minutes," Robinson said. Customers have used Planar's monitor in all-day tests without problems, he added.

The monitor can also be used in two-dimensional mode.