3-D gets down to business

The same technology that makes images pop off movie screens now helps corporations design models, build objects - even manage employees.

By Michael V. Copeland, senior writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Was your idea of a romantic evening watching My Bloody Valentine 3-D? You weren't alone: The film, released in mid-January, has raked in box office receipts of $50 million, thanks in part to eerily realistic special effects. (That coal miner's pick really does look as if it's heading straight for your face.)

Indeed, this is a killer moment for all things 3-D. Movies are hot: This year some 21 films in 3-D are slated for theaters, up from five in 2008. And 3-D now extends beyond Hollywood. Special 3-D computer technology, long used in industrial design, is fast becoming embedded in the general business world.

Thanks to huge improvements in software and the development of faster, cheaper computer processors, nearly every industry, from pharmaceuticals to fashion, is making use of that added dimension to improve processes and products: With the help of 3-D, construction crews are building office towers, doctors are detecting diseases - and designers are creating ever cooler-looking objects. Here are a few:

Mapping workflow

Spread along a lazy river outside Bakersfield, Calif., is a 100-year-old oilfield the size of Manhattan. Owned and operated by Chevron, the Kern River facility pumps about 80,000 barrels of crude a day from a dusty landscape studded with 13,000 wells. Managing those mechanical beasts is no small task. As many as 800 people tackle nearly 4,000 maintenance jobs a month, patching leaky valves on steam injection wells, replacing worn pump belts, and performing regular upkeep on the holding tanks that separate oil and water. Until last November, all that work was managed by sticking colored magnets on a map attached to a magnetic whiteboard. "Work crews would regularly show up at a well with the wrong equipment or find another crew nearby doing something that, for safety reasons, made it impossible for them to do their job," says Ray Thavarajah, project manager for Chevron's so-called iField project at Kern River. To address the tangle of information, Thavarajah and his team developed an electronic 3-D map of the surface, complete with oil wells, structures, vehicles, and people, all updated in real time.

The work orders are layered on the map, stacked like poker chips in order of priority. The 3-D view makes it much easier to deploy people, Thavarajah says, because it gives a complete view of each crew's location, plus a snapshot of ongoing and planned projects. "What used to take a few hours - to get a work schedule for the week - now takes 45 minutes because you don't have to try to wade through all the clutter," Thavarajah says.

Medical breakthroughs

The medical industry has long employed 3-D imaging, but a new machine from device maker TechniScan produces a 3-D object that goes way beyond pretty pictures. It provides intelligence to help doctors in planning their treatments. TechniScan's device, still in trials pending FDA approval, uses ultrasound imaging technology to capture cross-sections of a breast and employs some off-the-shelf graphics processors to assemble a complete 3-D rendering. The result provides far more detail than a picture ever could: A physician can look at the image from various angles to examine a lesion seemingly in situ, after the patient has gone home. The image isn't merely a representation; it is almost as good as the real thing.

Intelligent design

Such advances are finding their way into all sorts of 3-D-generated objects. Take an office building designed using modern 3-D tools. It doesn't just look like a real-world version of a structure: The windows "know" what their insulating properties are and how light exposure and the use of various materials affect energy consumption. The latest 3-D technology also lets an architect test the building for performance and durability before the real version is built. Such virtual prototyping is already happening across all strata of engineering. The next frontier: instant physical prototyping. Jeff Kowalski, chief technology officer at 3-D software provider Autodesk, says that someday soon, companies and even individuals will be able to design something in 3-D on a computer, then instantly produce it using a cheap, rapid prototype machine. "Don't like the way your sunglasses fit?" Kowalski muses. "Make new ones."

STRAIGHT TO VIDEO: 3-D Goes Home

Forget high-def. The latest home entertainment craze is going to be 3-D. Hollywood studios, electronics manufacturers, and chipmakers all see the home theater market as the next frontier for 3-D.

As studios shoot a growing number of movies in 3-D, they're itching for a way to present those films to home audiences. (Home-video sales and rentals accounted for about 68% of the $88.9 billion worldwide movie market in 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.) They also have another motive; 3-D movies are harder to pirate (though you can be sure someone will figure it out). TV makers, meanwhile, are salivating at the chance to sell consumers 3-D-ready televisions - and yes, unfortunately, those silly-looking LCD glasses.

But movie theater owners shouldn't feel too threatened for now. The industry has yet to agree on standardized 3-D technology. If the long and bloody battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD is any indicator, cinemas have the advantage for years to come. To top of page

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