Two of the country’s top aviation organizations—NASA and Boeing Co.—have selected a local firm, jointly funding a $250,000 contract, to use its technology to improve the test outcomes of pilots.
Dimension Technologies Inc., based at 315 Mt. Read Boulevard, has secured a Phase II-E Small Business Innovation Research contract for the firm’s 3-D display technology that functions without glasses.
The technology is ideal for pilots who cannot wear glasses during flight, officials said.
Under the terms of the contract, the firm’s 3-D display will be installed in a Boeing flight simulator that will help NASA test and validate pilot performance in mission-critical situations, officials said.
Dimension Technologies has completed Phase I and Phase II SBIR contracts. The contracts of this program, Phase I, Phase II and Phase II-E, total $1 million in funding. The new deal was greenlighted in July and will be completed in January, officials said.
“This is the result of a long line of evolution,” said Jesse Eichenlaub, the company’s chief scientist and co-founder. “We found out early on that when people are looking for 3-D displays they want everything they’ve got in a normal 2-D display plus 3-D. This (new technology) is designed to get rid of all the negatives associated with other 3-D displays (such as) ones that force you to put your head in certain positions or that cut down the resolution.
“Originally I thought (the technology) was going to be adopted a lot sooner, but we had to wait for the LCD technology to advance.”
Dimension Technologies is a research and development firm that builds and licenses its patented autostereoscopic LCD display technology—3-D technology without glasses—for uses in government and commercial applications in the automotive and aerospace fields. The company marks its 30th anniversary this year.
“Thirty years as an R&D company is amazing on its own,” said Tom Curtin, director of business development. “We’re emerging from a commercial standpoint. There’s a huge convergence going on of content exploding, LCD performance going way up, LCD pricing going way down, (and) all of those factors create a real critical juncture for our form of glasses-free 3-D.”
The company was founded in 1986 by Eichenlaub and Arnie Lagergren. It has seven employees. The technology was first developed under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA, and New York State was one of the initial investors in the company.
In 1989 Dimension Technologies received a $50,000 Small Business Innovation Research contract from NASA.
$16 million in funding
Since then the company has received more than $16 million in funding across 44 government contracts and from private investors. The technology has gone through some 14 generations since its start and the company has 11 patents issued or in process.
Its clients include NASA, New York, the National Science Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force. An automotive electronics market leader also is a client, but the company is not allowed to disclose its identity.
Dimension Technologies is looking to apply the technology in multiple industries including the medical imaging and education sectors, officials said.
“The idea has always been if this thing could tip, and it’s a golden ticket,” Curtin said. “It’s got such a huge upside that if it ever became standard in any of the targeted industries—standard to the extent that it was like 20-30 percent of the market—this would be a huge organization.
Today “our challenge is to stay focused, stick to our knitting as they say, follow the NASA and now Boeing path. This is credibility at the highest level.”
The two problems the company was asked to remedy for the NASA and Boeing contract are the need for mobility of pilots—the past iteration would only allow pilots to see in 3D if they were centered—and the need for increased resolution.
“DTI has successfully demonstrated a 3-D flight-deck display that overcomes the head-box limitations of traditional autostereoscopic systems,” said Kyle Ellis, NASA project lead in a statement.
“NASA and its partners in attendance at the demonstration are interested in further developing this technology for potential applications in advanced flight-deck concepts and beyond.”
The company’s new technology is one of the core technologies developed under the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, a document that guides NASA investments in technologies to make air travel safer, more efficient and improve the air traveler experience, officials said.
Other applications that could come out of NASA research include luggage screening, uses in the flight deck for the pilot, and in air traffic control towers.
The company has been asked to develop a five-page chapter within the directorate to be published in September.
“This is a shopping document that companies that buy technology use to solve these problems,” Curtin said.
According to studies by NASA and the Air Force and others, the use of 3-D displays can increase pilot situational awareness by 18 percent. Three-D display technology also can improve hazard avoidance in aircraft, helicopters and potentially spacecraft, officials said.
“It is one of those issues where you don’t know you have a problem until you see the thing that makes it so much better,” Curtin said.
It was difficult to develop the technology, but it was also a challenge to get others to see its merit early on, said CEO Lagergren. LCD lighting was not available to the firm back in 1986 when it began.
“There were no supporting industries around at all so we used fluorescent bulbs,” he said. “The competitors were people doing things with lenticular lenses which had been around forever and people doing things with polarized glasses. Three-D didn’t happen as a market until four to five years ago.”
When the technology was ready, there was no industry to support it. Since the 2000s, when the gaming and software industries as well as big data integration picked up, 3-D technology has become more well-known, officials said.
But having to wear glasses to see in 3-D has been a barrier for any practical function of 3-D display technology, Curtin said.
“(3-D with glasses) flopped for a number of reasons,” he said. “One is people don’t like to wear glasses. They did a study and 50 percent of the people said they wouldn’t buy a 3-D TV if they had to wear 3-D glasses to see it. The other big fall down for the 3-D TV makers was there was really no content to look at.”
When it comes to 3-D display technology, having to wear glasses to use the technology poses problems for users such as pilots, drivers and remote operators of unmanned vehicles.
“You’re a pilot, you’re faced with a situation and now you have to make a decision about what you’re going to do about it—you want to be working with the best information available,” Curtin said. “The best information available is when you can see it with depth. Depth matters.
“It turns out that when people are doing things that require them to steer, to navigate, make a decision, avoid something, engage something—depth makes a big difference.”
The company focuses on the practical uses of 3-D technology now but in the long term sees a consumer market for the entertainment space. The company envisions the technology could one day be used for regular television sets, hypothetically allowing a crowd of people to see the Super Bowl in 3-D without glasses.
“One of the things that we’ve learned too is that there’s a huge difference in the market for the wow side of 3-D, the entertainment side and the real high-value functional 3-D, which helps a pilot see and navigate better, (or helps) someone looking at a medical image,” Curtin said. “The entertainment may come but right now our path is through the functional side.”
Operating an optics company in Rochester is an obvious decision.
“We’re part of the whole idea that Rochester is an optics and imaging center of excellence,” Curtin said. “We’re perfectly located when you look at the educational (environment), RIT, U of R and even MCC have advanced optics programs, so we draw on that.”
For the company, that NASA and Boeing see value in their technology helps build momentum.
“Everybody has seen the potential,” Curtin said. “There is a critical mass right now, and there’s a lot of energy and excitement around the technology, and we think this is the time.”
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