3-D Hardware Ready for Mac Market?

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The recent Siggraph computer-graphics conference in Los Angeles could have been a frustrating experience for Mac users. The show, which covers such high-end graphics technologies as 3-D animation and virtual reality, is heavy on Windows NT and Unix applications. Wandering the aisles, you'd see hardware that could have walked out of a science-fiction movie–3-D scanners, solid-object printers, motion-capture rigs–only to find that none of it worked on a Mac.

However, given Apple's resurgence, the company's adoption of the OpenGL 3-D graphics standard, and the prospect for wicked-fast Mac systems running AltiVec-based PowerPC chips, some developers of high-end 3-D hardware are taking another look at the Mac.

Niche Product

These are far from being mass-market products. A midrange 3-D scanner–for scanning models directly into 3-D modeling or rendering programs–will set you back $50,000 or more, as will a solid-object printer, which produces physical models from 3-D computer data. In some cases, the system price includes a dedicated Windows NT workstation.

Motion-capture systems, for controlling animated 3-D characters in real time, are even more esoteric. Most such systems feature a suit embedded with position sensors. When you wear the suit, any movements you make are automatically applied to the 3-D character. Some companies offer facial-tracking systems that similarly allow an actor to control the speech and facial expressions of an animated figure.

OpenGL Benefits

Apple's embrace of OpenGL, a standard set of 3-D-graphics routines, will make it easier for developers to offer Mac versions of their hardware, because most are already using OpenGL-based driver software in their Windows NT or Unix products. The forthcoming G4 processor, with its AltiVec extensions, will offer unprecedented 2-D and 3-D graphics performance. And with Apple's resurgence, hardware developers are more confident in the long-term prospects for the Mac market.

Two developers of 3-D scanners, Digibotics and Cyberware, say they are considering Mac versions. Digibotics' Digibot II is a $50,000 scanner that currently works only with Windows NT. Cyberware offers a range of 3-D scanners, from tabletop models to a six-figure system designed to scan people's bodies.

Cyberware also offers a scanner, popular in film and broadcast production, for scanning heads. Combine it with a solid-object printer, and you have a workable, if expensive, system for producing portrait sculptures.

These may be costly and specialized products, but they occupy a niche–high-end graphics production–that's important to Apple. And as we've seen time and again in the computer business, those high-end, $50,000 products have a habit of migrating to the desktop. After all, it wasn't long ago that you had to shell out $50,000 for a high-quality color printer. Four or five years from now, 3-D scanners, printers, and other exotic hardware products could well become common sights in some Mac studios.

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