Innovator

Innovator: Bruce Thomas's Projection Technology


When it comes to projection technology, computer scientists have let us down. You can give a PowerPoint slide deck some added pizazz by flinging it up on a wall. Or you can wow friends with a tricked-out home theater system and display Bambi on the ceiling. But where is the technology that can shoot holograms out of R2-D2's head?

It may just be in Bruce Thomas's projector-filled office at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. Thomas runs the Wearable Computer Lab and has been working with researchers at Intel (INTC) to create projection technology. They've developed a system that can project images onto objects instead of screens or walls. Armed with Thomas's software, projectors bend text, images, and videos around the contours of an object. A slogan can wrap around a Coke (KO) bottle; fins and designs can be projected onto a car in a showroom.

Thomas uses software to create a 3D model of an item. Then he feeds in information about the projector's position and applies yet more software to figure out the contortions the projection must perform. While this is still a research project, Thomas believes the technology could make its way to industrial settings—and that's what has interested Intel.

Imagine a worker at a chip manufacturing plant staring at dozens of buttons, levers, and gauges, each of which controls supersensitive, expensive equipment. "Even our experts are hesitant sometimes if they haven't done a hazardous procedure in a while," says Dan McCulley, an Intel researcher who has worked with Thomas. The projection system can help by highlighting the right button and displaying a video across the equipment that reminds the worker how to do tough jobs. "This reinforces that they are doing the right thing," McCulley says, adding that the company plans to test the technology in its plants.

Carmakers have expressed interest in using the system to guide assembly workers. So have officials from the defense industry. The projections could be used to test the design of a new submarine control panel before putting it into production.

An American, Thomas visited Australia years ago and never left. He's been consumed with finding ways to merge virtual reality with the real world. "In manufacturing, you do a virtual mock-up and then spend real money making a prototype," he says. "We want to ... let people see and touch a design before they have to commit to some of those more expensive, permanent decisions."

And what about the sci-fi stuff? Well, Thomas refers to his technology as the Holodeck system, a nod to Star Trek's virtual reality chamber.

EDUCATION

PhD in Computer Science, Flinders University in Adelaide.

GOAL

To find ways to apply virtual reality in the real world.

THE FUTURE

Could be used by chipmakers and auto manufacturers.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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