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It's large, it's round--it's the latest in 3D

Start-up Adelphi gets a customer for its 3D display with a glass dome that connects to a workstation. The U.S. Army wants it, but prohibitive costs will keep it out of the mainstream.

The ideal computer display of today may be flat, but a start-up called Actuality Systems has gazed into the future, and what it has seen looks more like a crystal ball.

The Burlington, Mass., company, founded in 1997, has been perfecting a type of 3D display with a basketball-size glass dome that connects to an ordinary workstation to display 3D models and animations.

On Tuesday the company announced its first customer, the Adelphi, Md.-based U.S. Army Research Laboratory, which carries out research for the Army, the Department of Defense, NASA and other government bodies.

Actuality's Perspecta display costs $40,000 and up, but the company says costs could drop so that the device would be affordable for ordinary consumers and gamers.

"Component costs will decrease," said Gregg Favalora, Actuality's chief technology officer and a co-founder. "There could be a desktop unit in the future."

The display sold to the Army lab is mounted on a stabilized rolling platform, which bears the display and an IBM workstation along with a retractable keyboard, joystick and flat-panel display. The display has its own built-in Spatial Rendering Kernel, which is designed around open standards such as Open GL. This allows it to interact with mainstream applications running on Windows or Linux software.

Favalora would not comment on the applications the Army lab would use the display for, but the company said the display would be evaluated for command-and-control and field operations.

The 3D mechanism behind Perspecta goes back to the 1960s but had to wait for high-resolution processing and display technology to catch up. Perspecta uses a collection of proprietary algorithms to slice 3D data into a format that can be replicated in three spatial dimensions. A projector then displays the data at 5,000 frames per second onto a rotating screen within the transparent sphere, in such a way that the eye sees a 3D image.

The image comprises 198 two-dimensional slices, with a 768-by-768-pixel resolution for each slice. The image is displayed using a Texas Instruments 1600 MIPS digital signal processor with a 24Hz volume refresh.

Each 10-inch-diameter image contains 100 million "volume pixels," or "voxels," according to Actuality, and can be viewed from any angle. Other systems either generate a 2D rendering of a 3D image or require stereoscopic goggles to translate the display into what appears to be 3D. Actuality is initially targeting the pharmaceuticals industry, where researchers need to see the interactions of 3D models in designing and manufacturing drugs.

It will be a while before such technology is suitable for mass-market use, however. In addition to the cost needing to come down, display technology needs to improve; at present, full-resolution images are displayed in only eight colors, and brightness and contrast could be improved, Favalora said.

And for some uses, such as displaying the types of holographic images seen in 1977's "Star Wars," computing technology itself will have to make advances. "The industry is still a little ways off from full-motion 3D movies," Favalora said.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.