Exploring Every Dimension of 3D Technology and its Amazing Applications
Have you ever eaten a pizza printed by a robot? How about shared a handshake with someone on the opposite side of the world? Neither have I. But these are all experiences that are possible with 3D technology.
Oh! Yes! You recognize the term, 3D. You've probably seen it on a movie poster. Heck, you've probably seen movies in 3D yourself.
But I bet you didn't know that 3D technology could be used to build a house without lifting a finger. Or that you can trick your mind into seeing a 3D image by simply crossing your eyes. Have you ever gotten lost in a virtual reality environment so vivid, you momentarily forgot it wasn't real?
So let's talk about everything 3D. We'll talk about its origins, how it helps us now, and what possibilities the future holds for 3D technology. But first things first…
What is 3D?
In the most fundamental terms, 3-D, or three-dimensional space, refers to the three values needed to determine the position of a point. So, while 2-D space might only require you to work within the bounds of length and width, the third dimension adds an element of height.
The simple addition of this third axis opens up an entire world impossible to imagine in 2D. Essentially, 3D is to 2D what a cube is to a square; endlessly more complex.
For example, while a normal, 2D movie appears flat on a screen, including a third dimension makes it feel as though the environment of the film extends further back or jumps right out at you.
In physics terms, 3D refers to the three dimensions of space we occupy. Similarly to the mathematical interpretation, these dimensions refer to the three axes representing forward-back, side-to-side, and up-down directions.
This concept might not seem new to you, but innovators are taking advantage of this extra dimension every day and in increasingly complex ways.
What is 3D Technology?
For most of us non-mathematicians, 3D or 3D technology refers to an innovative quality that imbues a flat image or item into space with a sense of depth. The use of this concept in technology has recently seen an unprecedented increase as communication technology continues to improve at an alarming rate.
The advent of 3D printers, televisions, and medical imaging technology only shows the potential of how this technology will continue to improve human lives in many fields, and 3D technologies are only becoming more accessible to the average consumer.
But understanding exactly how it works might be a different story. Let's start by learning how 3D works in the natural world.
Close one eye. Now try walking around (not too fast). If you feel a little disoriented, don't worry, it's just a natural effect of how our eyes operate.
Humans perceive the world visually through binocular vision—not to be confused with, well, binoculars. Each eye, about 3 inches apart from the other, receives an image from a slightly different perspective, which the supercomputer in your head (your brain) then synthesizes.
The brain calculates the two separate but overlapping images and is able to reinterpret the data as a gauge of depth and distance.
We take binocular vision for granted, but the simple innovation of having two eyes allows us to comprehend the three spatial dimensions in which we exist.
For another fun exercise to better understand the slight differences in each eye, hold both hands out in front of you and overlap them to create a small triangular space between your thumbs and index fingers. Now pick a spot on the wall (clock, picture, etc.) and close one eye. Now close the other. Weird, right?
That slight distance between your eyes helps you do everything from hitting a target to picking up a cup on the table without knocking it over. Science!
3-D movies work similarly by using a technique called stereopsis, which explains why it looks so blurry when you take your 3-D glasses off. In a 3-D movie, the projector displays two versions of the same frame, just slightly offset.
Each lens of your glasses blocks one of the images through circular polarization, effectively simulating the way you perceive the real world with each eye. In a frame with more depth, the two images are proportionally more offset, while frames that require less simulation of depth lessen the space between the two images.
You can even use stereopsis to trick your brain without any glasses.
Relax and cross your eyes until you see three images. The center image includes a surprise!
Now that we understand our natural relationship with the three spatial dimensions and the origins of our understanding, let's talk about 3D in industry.
History in 3D! (but in 2D)
While it might feel like the concept of 3D is a fairly recent trend, it actually got its start way back near the invention of photography.
In 1838, less than 20 years after Nicéphore Niépse invented the first photographic process, an English scientist named Sir Charles Wheatstone developed the first Stereoscope. Like the previous GIF, this invention utilized stereopsis to manipulate visual perception.
A stereoscopic photo of Queen Victoria was taken at the Great Exhibition in 1951 and immediately gained fame, introducing the technology to the world. From there, the stereoscope saw common usage through the mid-20th century, when the distinctively red View-Master was introduced to the market.
The first 3D films were developed in the 1920s, with The Power of Love credited as the first confirmed 3D film shown to the public. Audiences, however, showed little interest in stereoscopic films until 1952, when new 3D technology reignited a faltering box office.
For the next year, studios produced 3D film after 3D film, only to see a decline in interest by 1954. The major reason for this was the difficulty in projecting two strips of film at once—a fragile process requiring two projectionists, which, if projecting incorrectly, made the film virtually impossible to watch.
In the decades that followed, 3D films saw some minor success, but as the technology stagnated, it remained more of a novelty experience than the preferred movie-viewing format.
This all changed in 1985 when IMAX began producing non-fiction films with enhanced technology that focused on more accurately simulating the perception of 3 dimensions, which effectively eliminated the eye strain caused by faulty projection.
The Walt Disney Company joined in on the action, innovating further to bring 3D attractions to its parks. During this time, 3D film technology found a comfortable niche, adding even another dimension (you guessed it: 4) by adding tactile and olfactory elements to the experience.
In the 21st century, as film and 3D technologies continued its steady course of innovation, mainstream films again begin testing out the format. With the 2004 release of The Polar Express, animated films began seeing a profitable market in the 3D realm.
This all came to a head in 2009, when 7 major studio films were released in 3D, including perhaps the single most famous 3D film in history, Avatar, which ignited the current explosion of 3D film and technology.
4D films have also seen some mainstream success, with films like Gravity providing an added experience with hydraulically powered seats.
3D in the Home
Simply put, 3D is cool. The idea of images popping out past the bounds of the frame is just fun, and can be applied to countless exciting forms of entertainment. As technology in other fields continue to improve exponentially, so does the prospect of merging these with 3D capabilities.
3D films have always existed in some capacity, but there has been a recent rise in availability of 3D technologies in the home. These can be enjoyed through your TV, phone and tablets, gaming systems, and more.
Now, you can take the wonder of 3D films back to your own living room. What previously meant paying extra for a single feature now gives you total control to enjoy 3D entertainment in your home, at your own leisure.
Smart TVs, in particular, allow you not only to enjoy 3D Blu-Ray discs, but let you access online video content through applications like Vudu and Vimeo, which provides you an endless bevy 3D content to enjoy, whether you're a fan of adventure sports, computer-generated animation, or anything in between.
A slightly different kind of 3D technology concerns the design of animation in a simulated 3D style. While the images don't necessarily pop out the same way 3D films do, the advances in 3D modeling have allowed for the impossible to come alive right in front of our eyes.
3D modeling utilizes the three-vector concept. Like the cube: square analogy, 3D modeling is essentially the science and art of drafting within three axes, as though your drawing paper was cubic instead of a flat sheet. Computers allow the artist or engineer to build objects virtually, then move and rotate them within the 3-vector space.
Of course, that's not all. The user can then place these objects into a scene and control how this object interacts with its environment and other objects spatially. Finally, the graphics artist will manipulate the way the object interacts with light, which provides an added feeling of depth.
Video games have come a long way since Pong. 3D concepts have been a vital aspect of game development since Wolfenstein 3D first introduced 3D graphics to the industry.
Now, the 3D modeling in games have become so realistic, that you can watch individual blades of grass move in the virtual wind, interacting with the artificial source of light to appear as though the wind is swirling around it.
It seems like just yesterday that Super Mario went from moving left and right to jumping around in every conceivable direction. Now, you can throw on an Oculus Rift and enjoy a fully immersive gaming experience in hyperrealistic 3D.
The best example of 3D technology used in gaming comes from Nintendo's handheld console. Since the time of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo and SEGA have developed various stereoscopic headsets to complement their mainstream consoles. The 3DS, however, opted to get rid of the glasses/headset altogether by using a parallax barrier.
The parallax barrier is an effective technique to show stereoscopic images, but with an added screen layer on top build with specially spaced slits. This internally projects a different set of images to each eyeball, thus manipulating the mind to perceive depth without the need for additional equipment.
Other Uses for the Parallax Barrier
The 3DS is not the only way the parallax barrier is used. Some smartphone models, like the HTC EVO 3D and the LG Optimus 3D phones, employ the same technique to allow its users to experience 3D in the palm of their hand.
You've probably seen videos of big, futuristic boxes with equally futuristic robotic arms skimming back and forth to create an object out of nothing. Maybe you've seen them in person. Regardless, 3D printing seems to be everywhere right now, and with good reason.
Just like with 3D graphics modeling, 3D printers work like regular printers, but with the added third axis. In fact, 3D printing requires a computer-aided design (CAD) to direct the printing process, merging two 3D technologies to create all kinds of materials.
The potential for 3D printing is unbounded. Aside from its obvious uses in engineering, these printers have been used to create clothing items, entire homes, and even food.
Major clothing brands like Nike and Reebok have begun 3D printing shoe parts. By using 3D printers, these companies can lower manufacturing costs, manufacturing time, and increase design options.
Here, Bill McGuinness, head of Reebok Future, discusses the advantages of using 3D printers.
The most important aspect of 3D printing lies in the materials compatible with the machines. Typically, a binder fluid is used, which solidifies and maintains form when printed, but as the technology progresses, leading companies like Ultimaker are recognizing the importance of providing more options to clients.
Currently, about 70,000 materials are available as printing material. The implications of this technology are promising for future engineering.
3D (and 4D) Ultrasounds
Ultrasounds are vital in monitoring the growth of a baby in utero. Historically, ultrasounds have used the same echo locative technique employed by dolphins and bats, bouncing sound waves within the womb to convert to visual image.
Doppler ultrasounds work similarly, but instead of creating sound waves, it uses the sound of the baby's heartbeat to process an image.
These methods certainly work, and will continue to be used for routine checkups. 3D and 4D ultrasounds, however, provide a more complete image of the baby within the womb.
3D ultrasounds compile multiple two-dimensional photographs to create a 3-dimensional rendering of the baby. This allows doctors to more easily locate suspected anomalies in the fetus, like cleft lips and spinal deformations.
Now you may be wondering what a 4D ultrasound looks like. Is it like Disneyland? Not quite. Not at all, really. The 4 in 4D refers to the fourth physical dimension, time. Essentially, a 4D ultrasound is a video ultrasound that can record movement within the womb.
The safety of 3D and 4D ultrasound technology is still being heavily researched since the long-term effects are as yet unknown. As research progresses, doctors will greatly improve the ability to safely monitor a baby with more accuracy, saving countless potential lives.
The Importance of 3D Modeling
We've spoken heavily about 3D imagery and some cool applications. You may have noticed that most of the scientific advancements utilizing 3D share one thing in common: 3D modeling.
Industries are becoming more reliant on computing and the virtual space every day. This also requires an increase in 3D modeling capability. 3D modeling not only helps industries like animation, film, and gaming, but they can help realize architectural designs more clearly and accurately, and can even help forensic scientists conduct facial reconstruction models from skeletons.
Compared to 2D modeling, the advantages of 3D modeling become undeniable. 3D modeling allows you to visualize any concept in a practical manner.
Imagine you're asked to draw the entire exterior of the Empire State Building as accurately as you can. It would be pretty difficult to do in one drawing. No matter how perfectly you can draw the two-dimensional image, you're missing at least one side.
Even if you get clever and draw the opposite walls on the other side of the paper, your brain is required to reinterpret what you're looking at. 3D modeling allows you to see it, move it, and manipulate how you want in real time.
3D modeling is also mathematically incomparable to 2D modeling. The pure act of inputting calculations into a computer greatly decreases the need for estimating and imagining. Instead, you can control relevant factors to know exactly what you'll get.
One example of cutting edge 3D modeling comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their Tangible Media Group has taken 3D modeling and imagery a step further by bringing it back into physical space.
In this video, they demonstrate the new Dynamic Shape Display called inFORM, which can record physical movement with multiple cameras, upload the information, synthesize the footage into a 3D model, and download the information to be recreated physically—all in real time.
The applications for this alone are innumerable. Now, designs built through 3D modeling can be presented physically, adding an extra layer to the advantages of turning ideas and concepts into reality.
Every industry mentioned above—civil engineering, medicine, gaming, etc.—can all benefit from this technology, as well as every industry that requires any type of conceptual design. Even graphing data can now be visualized more clearly.
By now, you can probably begin to imagine all the possibilities of 3D technology. 3D modeling was first introduced 40 years ago, and already we are able to create food and shelter from raw materials in a fraction of the time it used to take. Complex, lightweight prosthetics with startling mobility can be created with startling ease.
In a few short years, improved 3D ultrasound technology, combined with an improved design of the inFORM, could allow doctors to interact with physical, 3D models of a fetus with unprecedented clarity. Imagine if a CT scan could create such an intricate model of a patient that they could perform a full physical checkup without ever being in the same room.
In the operating room, complex and risky procedures can be virtually conducted on these models beforehand, and once the data is uploaded, it can be improved upon and recreated with 100% accuracy for the real thing by robotic arms, potentially lowering the margin of human error to near zero.
The Dynamic Shape Display also suggests exciting possibilities for the virtual reality and gaming industries. What if you could put on a suit made from the same sensors used in the inFORM every time you entered a virtual reality environment? With the help of 3D modeling, you could physically interact with objects that never existed in the real world.
As the specificity of the inFORM improves, these suits could not just provide entertainment, but can help with physical therapy and the learning of new skills. Sports can be enjoyed physically and with peers without having to leave the home.
3D Printing and Factories
Factories are an essential tool for industry; each moving piece working harmoniously with countless others to create a product greater than the sum of their parts. The ability to reprogram, however, poses a problem that has yet to be solved on a large scale.
Factories are not flexible. In the past, this posed less of a problem. A design might change here and there, forcing a machine to be retooled, or a necessitating different training for employees, but manufacturing has never before experienced the constantly changing demands of the modern consumer at this rate.
Enter 3D printing. Like we saw in the offices of Reebok Future, 3D printing allows for a level of versatility that can match the fast-paced demands. In the future, every single shoe could be customized to the exact specifications of an individual's foot without disrupting the manufacturing process.
In just five years, 3D printing has evolved from the (now) crude plastic prototypes that created fun shapes, to multi-million dollar heavy machines that use electron beams to fuse metal parts together.
3D For You Now
The possible future of 3D technology is exciting, but you don't have to wait to get in on the action.
If you're interested in 3D printing, you can purchase an affordable 3D printer for less than $1,000. The least expensive 3D printer costs a whopping $15 online.
If you'd rather sit back and enjoy 3D entertainment, you can purchase Ultra 4K smart TVs with 3D capabilities from trusted brands like Sony, Samsung, and Sharp.
If you prefer to interact with your 3D technology, try the Google Cardboard. Just as it sounds, the simple product is made from foldable cardboard, but allows you to use your phone to experience 3D video for less than $30.
Hopefully, this article broadened your understanding of 3D technology, its origins, its uses, and the unlimited potential of the concept. Whether you're an engineer, filmmaker, gamer, designer, or none of those things, 3D technology can help improve your experiences.
If you want to continue your journey into the 3D technology, we've provided some resources for you to expand your knowledge and spark some ideas that could further innovation in the 3D sphere.
This website will provide you with all the information you need to get started with your own 3D printer.
If video games are more your thing, check out this awesome forum where users share and discuss everything related to 3D modeling in video games.