Last night, Harvard students caught a glimpse of the future in Memorial Hall.
In a tiny classroom on the second floor of the historic building, 60 people packed together in darkness to watch 23-year-old Gregg Favarola--a Harvard electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate on a leave of absence--demonstrate his prototype for a three-dimensional television.
Within a tiny three-inch by three-inch cube of space, a bright red corkscrew spiral appeared out of thin air and began to rotate in three dimensions.
Viewers from different angles saw different perspectives of the rotating screw, and many bobbed their heads up and down to capture the three-dimensional effect fully.
"You can walk around the image and see it from around the room," Favarola explained to the onlookers at his presentation, sponsored by the Harvard Entrepreneurs Club (HEC).
How Does It Work?
Favarola--who started Actuality Systems, Inc., along with computer science concentrators Michael J. Giovinco '98 and Shawn T. Samuel '98, to market the technology--won't divulge competitive details.
But he did explain that the image is created by laser beams reflected onto a rapidly rotating screen, much as a television image is created by an electron beam scanning across a stationary phosphor screen.
As the screen sweeps through the air, it provides a moving target for the laser beams, allowing Favarola to project light into half-a-million chunks of three-dimensional space called "voxels" rather than the flat "pixels" on a television or computer screen.
Favarola designed the first version of his display unit in 1996 as an undergraduate senior project at Yale University under the supervision of Electrical Engineering Adjunct Professor Peter J. Kindlmann.
"His was a star senior project," Kindlmann wrote in an e-mail to the Crimson. "His prototype is still running in a display case in the Becton engineering building."
Favarola built this prototype model with off-the-shelf components purchased at hobby stores and through the mail. The total cost: less than $3,000 dollars.
Favarola claimed his invention can produce brighter and more detailed images than the half-dozen other three-dimensional display technologies under development without even requiring special 3-D glasses.
Because the display unit is based on a television-like "raster display" rather than a typical laser-show "vector display," it can animate pictures with little computational effort, he said.
Riding on his success in last year's $50K entrepreneurship competition at MIT, Favarola has taken a leave of absence from Harvard to manage his startup company. The company plans to develop and market the display technology for military, medical and entertainment applications.
"We noticed a big need in the world of computer displays," said Favarola at last night's presentation.
Actuality Systems applied for a "provisional patent" for the display unit in 1996 and expects full patent approval by 1999, he said.
The company is currently looking for "several million" dollars of venture to finance its next round of expansion, Favarola said. Among the improvements the company hopes to make are increasing the resolution, or level of detail, of the three-dimensional projector, expanding its size to at least six inches on a side and using "multicolored light sources" to generate full-color images, he said.
Favarola also discussed the challenges associated with launching a successful startup company at last night's event.
Favarola advises prospective entrepreneurs not to waste their time "for five million dollars."
"Only do something if you can make more than $300 million," he said. "Don't waste your time, or investors' time, unless the return will be gigantic. This is the mind frame you need to have."