The real 3D - Looking at all sides of 3D reveals a future far beyond pixels

Posted: 06.03.11

3D is an illusion. Right, got that. Ever since I’ve been working around the computer industry I’ve had people tell me 3D is an illusion. Like, I didn’t know that. The computer screen is a 2D surface, and when we look at objects and turn them, or run into a 3D maze with our big ol’ gun, it’s still a 2D screen. The 3D we think we see is just the illusion of depth. Yeah, yeah, yeah, got it. And, then at the Dimension3 conference in Paris, again, a speaker bemoaned the fact that stereoscopic 3D is just an illusion to trick our eyes into thinking we’re seeing 3D. That speaker was Pierre Vandergheysnt and he was talking about using panoptic cameras to get enough information for holographic displays — another illusion but one that you can walk around and interact with in actual space … like a model.

All my children: Zaha Hadid’s models offer variations for city scapes

After the conference we wandered off to see the Zaha Hadid exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Hadid is an architect whose fluid, organic shapes are helping define the skylines of cities rising out of the sands of the Middle East. Her buildings may one day be seen as the physical representations of the new wealth that’s being created in the world as emerging economies find their strengths. The exhibit was held in Hadid’s Mobile Art Pavilion, a futuristic, modular structure that’s emblematic of Hadid’s ideas. Hadid’s practice uses parametric design software to conceptualize designs and to iterate ideas over and over again to create complementary shapes. Standing inside Hadid’s pavilion, surrounded by small cities spit out, or maybe oozed up, by 3D printing technologies, I suddenly got it. 3D on screens really is an illusion.

Now that we’ve had a couple of generations brought up inside the cold cocoon of electronic media, we’re seeing the inevitable pushback. The love affair with gorgeous pixels has paved the way for a renewed love affair with all that is hand made, natural, and crafted.

Looking at all those smoothly sculpted surfaces that Hadid’s practice has created in computers and turned out in 3D printing, makes us want to put our hands on them and feel the curves. And, that’s just grand, it’s a major step forward for 3D technology.

It’s not just aesthetic, either. The ability to create organic curves and natural shapes and to print them has enabled prosthetics that are human-scaled, and teeth that fit.

What’s next? Finally, finally, finally, after years of talking about it, there are signs that creating 3D objects is finally getting easier. New tools like SketchUp, TinkerCAD, and Autodesk’s 123D are enabling easier modeling. Likewise, Daz 3D, which has maintained the legacy of consumer 3D — or at least it has acquired much of the software developed in the 90s in the hope that consumers would pick up 3D — has released its latest version of Daz Studio. The company promises that it’s easier than ever to use, and certainly with a price tag of free, it’s easy enough to try.

Also in our travels we ran across software company Mantis Vision of Israel. They have software that enables users to video an object, with say, a mobile phone, and instantly turn it into a 3D point cloud. The applications are obvious, CTO Gur Bittan says they’re talking to people in accident forensics and manufacture, but really, there are as many uses for this technology as there are objects in this real world.

So, 3D modeling is cheap and easy (okay, easier) to use, and as we are learning there’s even more we can do with our models. The person reliant on an artificial limb, can print out a new one when needed, or maybe a different color. The Saturday engineer can print out a part that fixes the toilet. And, the kid can print out a model of a new artwork and play with it. That would be considerably more gratifying than putting it on the refrigerator. (Yeah, okay, we’ll talk about 3D displays on refrigerators later.)

3D might be an illusion but it’s getting more real all the time.