Dear colleagues

Thanks to all +120,000 readers for your suggestions - please keep them coming.

As you know with your CAD design work, working in 3-d is almost upon us. You would have noticed the upsurge in 3-d movies recently. High definition images have already become established as a standard and it is very difficult to see much more improvements possible to 2-d images (As far as the human eye is concerned).3-d is now the focus area with cinemas replacing the boring old red-and-blue glasses for 3-d movies with newer and more realistic technologies. Cinemas are delighted with the 3-d technology as this gives them a great advantage over home cinemas which cannot yet match the technology.

By the end of the year, we will see the first few laptop or notebook computers which can display in 3-d; the first prototype 3-d televisions and associated consumer good are already bumping into the market. Despite the inevitable lack of agreement on standards, many firms will be releasing 3-d products in 2010. Creating 3-d images can be challenging; the stereoscopic approach requires scenes to be filmed from two perspectives. Special eyewear ensures that each eye only sees one of the scene perspectives and the brain is thus fooled into believing it is looking at a 3-d image. Another way is using an auto stereoscopic approach (no glasses required) where tiny lenses on the front of the display direct images for each eye in different directions. When your head is in the right place, you suddenly see a 3-d image.

Obviously to date, most content is 2 dimensional; thus creating some challenges in trying to use the vast amount of existing materials. New software (and firmware), now make it possible to convert images from 2-d to 3-d, by using object recognition software to analyse colours and shapes and to work out distances.

The other tried and tested approach to creating 3-d images is the use of holography. Producing a hologram of a fixed object is a tricky process. Essentially, a hologram is a special interference pattern created in a photosensitive medium (such as photographic film). When the light strikes this pattern it is scattered in such a way that it is identical to the real object, thus allowing you to see a 3-d image without glasses.

So what are some of the applications emerging?

A French company has devised a 3-d hologram image of their remotely operated submarine for oil exploration companies. This uses video and sonar data to create the image and the operator thus has a realistic 3-d image of what to control, which he does by moving a cursor around inside the hologram.

An improved approach to radiotherapy uses a 3-d hologram image of the patient showing where the beam of radiation is being directed to in the body allowing more pinpoint targeting of tumours.

Engineers working in different physical locations can now examine the same object using 3-d video conferencing, again using holograms.

So how do we apply this to your engineering?

* Consider everything you are doing and how you can migrate across to a more realistic 3-d form – from simple drawings to full realistic scenes
* Demand 3-d from your software vendors to improve your processes?
* Consider extending static 3-d into a dynamic 3-d image with live plant controls and automation systems
* Examine how or whether 3-d can improve process safety/quality of your processes and effectiveness of your systems.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked: “Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions”

Thanks to the Economist and Solidworks for references.

Yours in engineering learning