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The Millennium Dome  

By Kevin Davies 

May 7, 2002 | In a graphic example of the convergence of IT and life sciences, a small company called Actuality Systems Inc. has produced a dome-like display system capable of rendering dynamic 3-D images of biological molecules and more.

Says company founder Gregg Favalora, the device boasts "the greatest utilizable voxel set of any volumetric display constructed to date." Put another way, it offers the most realistic and versatile 3-D structural data around. What's more, you don't need to wear those ridiculous goggles.

"We feel it is the future of 3-D display for macromolecules," says Tim Harris, president and CEO of Structural GenomiX in La Jolla, Calif., which earlier this year became the first company to accept one of the domes for beta testing.

The Actuality dome is a freestanding unit that offers unrestricted 360-degree access to the projected image, providing a perspective unimaginable on a conventional 2-D monitor. The specifications of the volumetric 3-D display system are impressive. Inside the 20-inch-diameter dome sits a paper-thin diffuse screen capable of rotating more than 700 times per minute. A modified three-panel Texas Instruments projector beams a series of 198 2-D bitmaps — sequential cross-sections of the image — onto the revolving screen via three rotating mirrors, with a refresh rate of 20 Hz. Each individual image slice consists of 768x768 pixels, for a total 3-D image resolution of more than 116 million voxels (volume elements). Persistence of vision tricks the brain into integrating the individual displays into a vivid, eight-color 3-D image.

The software takes full advantage of the Texas Instruments Digital Light Processing (DLP) microprocessor, which is widely used in a variety of projector applications. The DLP chip consists of an array of about 750,000 hinged microscopic mirrors, each about 17 µm wide, and spaced less than 1 µm apart. The 3-D source data, typically processed from OpenGL-based or open-source software such as WebLab ViewerPro or RasMol, are processed in a Raster Engine and stored in a graphics memory buffer. The projected beam passes through a prism to separate the red, green, and blue wavelengths to each DLP chip, which then produce a pure digital bit stream. Favalora says it took him and his colleagues a year to write and optimize the software to adapt the DLP chip for the volumetric display.

Actuality Systems was founded by Favalora in 1997. After majoring in electrical engineering at Yale University, he dropped out of Harvard in the first year of his doctorate program and teamed up with Entrepreneur America's Rob Ryan, the man who founded Ascend Communications in 1989 and sold the company 10 years later to Lucent for a mere $25 billion. Ryan now offers advice to would-be entrepreneurs from his ranch in Montana. 

Favalora's company began life in his basement flat in Cambridge, Mass., eventually moving to slightly more salubrious surroundings in nearby Reading. He recently passed the reins of CEO to Cameron Lewis, former manager of electronic commerce at Netscape. Lewis' arrival brings the total number of employees to nine. So far, Actuality has raised the surprisingly modest sum of $3 million, but there are plans to start raising additional capital later this year.

The Actuality dome costs about $45,000, with another $10,000 or so for the accompanying software. Favalora acknowledges that part of the dome's appeal is the sheer aesthetic pleasure of rendering 3-D structures of proteins and DNA. But the unprecedented 360-degree access the display affords provides a wealth of opportunities for chemists and structural biologists, among others, to view and manipulate drug-target interactions.

Structural GenomiX, which is beta-testing Actuality's 3-D display, first became interested in the technology a few years ago, says Sean McCarthy, vice president for business development. "We're keen to be early adopters of this type of technology," says McCarthy. "We want to improve the way that scientists interact with 3-D information."

"One of the first user group meetings we had [included] two camps — the synthetic chemists and the computational chemists, between which there is a constant need for communication." Visualizing molecular interactions in genuine 3-D can help the dialogue, says McCarthy.

Favalora acknowledges there is room for technical improvement, particularly with regard to image brightness and graphics performance. There is a discernible flicker at times, and the unit could be quieter. But he says solutions to these problems are within reach.

Future applications are not limited to biomolecules: Medical imaging, including mammograms and ultrasounds, are high on Actuality's list of priorities. And Favalora notes there is no shortage of interest from the defense industry. Last month, for example, he presented a talk on the use of the dome for cockpit displays at the Aerosense 2002 meeting. The dome could also find uses in homeland security — in scanning luggage, for example — and oil and gas companies.

Horizons is a new section debuting this month in Bio·IT. Horizons will offer an eclectic collection of stories, profiles, commentaries, and conversations that paints a broad canvas of thoughts, trends, and technologies that are poised to define the bio-IT landscape.

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact Angela Parsons, 781.972.5467.