Volumetric displays can get people into 3D design

3D design is still very niche. Most computer users never do any 3D design. I can think of many reasons for that, but foremost there is no particular use case for them today. 3D printing is an example that will bring that use case. Especially when 3D home printers become more commonplace. But there are still ways to go. 3D design software is still hard to use or too simple to make meaningful objects. The issue is that for the average computer user using 3D design software feels awkward. This is not surprising because all software uses a 2D metaphor to create objects in 3D. You need skill and a trained mind set to translate a 2D representation on the screen to a 3D world in your mind. It takes practice and patience before you can master that. I see this as a huge friction to get consumers to design in 3D — and eventually print their own designed 3D objects.

The current generation of screens is moving towards displaying in 3D. But there is a significant problem with these solutions. They project a 3D image from a single view point. Changing the viewing angle does not change the image. This is acceptable for games or passive consumption of content. But it only marginally helps in the creation of 3D content.

A solution is volumetric displays. That will be the big game changer I think. Volumetric displays project an object or environment in 3 dimensions. It gives the viewer complete freedom in viewing the object from every angle. The user can view and inspect an object like the would any other real object — without touching it.

Unfortunately the technology is not mature yet and only exists in research. There are typically two approaches used: swept-volume display or static volume display. The swept-volume display works by projecting a single slice of the 3D image onto a moving screen. When the screen moves another slice of the 3D image is shown. If this is done fast enough, the persistence of images in the human vision will automatically blend all images together, and 3D object will emerge.

The static volume display has no moving parts. The 3D object is projected inside a solid volume. The volume could be a gas or liquid. A laser excites the molecules briefly to make them emit light.

Volumetric displays are one part of the equation. The other part is capturing 3D input to allow manipulation of 3D objects. The current computer mouse is designed to capture 2D input for a 2D environment. The mouse is not suitable to navigate a 3D environment. There are new 3D input devices on the market like the one from Sixense.

I have high hopes for volumetric displays. I have been following the research for years. Progress in this area is very slow. But I am sure when they get it right, it will be a game changer for 3D design.

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