I generally skip 3D movies in favor of the 2D variety. Jaegers and Kaijus occasionally jumping out toward the audience has felt old since Avatar, and there are not many signs the industry will be changing the experience soon.
So when zSpace CTO Dave Chavez brought his company’s 3D virtual reality tablet to the GigaOM office this week, I was surprised to find myself wowed. zSpace is a classroom desk-sized tablet that at first appears to be 2D. But when you don a pair of glasses, everything jumps up from the screen in 3D. You can move your head to peer around corners or pick up and rotate objects with a stylus you move over the tablet. When you pick them up, you’re actually pulling them out of the screen, where they appear to float in thin air.
We started the demo at a virtual desktop that had several items on it: a Scrabble board, a house, a monster. A beam of light extends out from the stylus to indicate the depth you’re touching. Once the beam touches an object, you can click the stylus’ main button to pick it up. It felt odd at first to work with that third dimension, which requires you to move your hand toward and away from the tablet, but it soon felt intuitive enough. I picked up a ruler and turned it over by twisting the stylus. It moved naturally, almost like it was in my hand.
Then I picked up a small metal tube and moved the stylus across the screen to drop it through a blue circle in the corner. Each of the items acts as a shortcut, and dropping one through the circle is how you travel between screens. The tube brought me to a robotic arm.
Using the stylus, I pulled the forearm cover off the arm to get a look at the wiring inside.
Other programs allowed me to toggle through the floors of a house, examine a watch in fine detail and play around with figurines. But my favorite was a model of a heart. I jumped when the stylus began to vibrate in time with the heartbeat.
Left-clicking on the stylus turned segments of the heart transparent, allowing me look inside, while right-clicking brought up names of different parts. Using a tiny virtual camera, I could peer into smaller nooks, which then appeared larger on a mirror floating on the screen.
Chavez said this is one of zSpace’s big applications. Medical professionals can use models like these for teaching or surgery prep. A patient’s organ could be modeled and appear on zSpace for easier exploration. Surgeons can communicate across separate tablets, with one manipulating the model and talking while the other watches and listens.
Education is another big goal. During the demo, I was presented with a tangled mass of molecules — a protein. I twisted it and resized it to get a look at the structure. Another program showed a virus I could take apart and learn the name of each part. The experience brought me back to chemistry class in college, where I would laboriously put together plastic balls and rods to model different molecules. This was better.
zSpace runs on Windows 7. The desktop homescreen I was presented with is zSpace’s custom software, but they are now working with developers on other applications. The virus, for example, came from existing third party software that was adapted to zSpace.
At $4,000 a tablet, zSpace isn’t for the average consumer. But it’s obvious why it’s a useful tool for doctors, schools and designers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it incorporated into gaming in the future too. This is fairly mature technology that will be interesting to watch.