In the movie “Star Wars” there is a scene in which Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and their intergalactic warrior pals gather around a table for a military briefing. The table, however, contains no maps or papers. Instead it projects images of the planet they live on and the enemy forces they are fighting.
Those hovering 3-D holographic images impressed moviegoers 20 years ago. Even by today’s standards the whole concept of such a device may seem futuristic to those who don’t work in a high tech research and development world.
Such a device does exist, however, in a rather inconspicuous South Main Street office here in Providence, which once housed a law firm. Called a virtual table, it is just one of a number of technologies being developed at the Fraunhofer Center for Research in Computer Graphics, Inc. (CRCG).
“To us it is totally prosaic at this moment,” said Bertram Herzog, CRCG’s vice president and chief operating officer.
“I say, ‘yawn, of course we can do it,’ to you it’s futuristic,” Herzog joked. “It’s taking research ideas and making them work right now. Of course, to the general public it looks like Buck Rogers stuff.”
CRCG deals in applied research, which is designed to come up with products that will be needed in about six to 18 months, Herzog explained. He conceded, however, that “we are dealing with technologies that you can’t buy at the local CompUSA.”
Other technology CRCG is working on includes a device that has been used to detect buried land mines; digital watermarking technology designed to protect multimedia products from copyright infringement; and software that allowed doctors at a base camp on Mt. Everest and doctors at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., to analyze the same ultrasound test results — simultaneously.
The TeleInViVo Medical Visualization tool has also been field tested in Bosnia to help NATO forces provide medical diagnosis services to the peacekeeping personnel and civilian population there, according to Fraunhofer literature.
Though CRCG, which is incorporated in the United States as a not-for-profit business, does research in conjunction with government agencies and academic institutions, administrators there would like to increase their partnerships with the business community.
“We’re very well positioned in the academic world. We would like to take this out into the commercial world and apply it,” said Lars B. Karle, CRCG’s vice president. Among its current clients are the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
“Companies like ours could either specialize (in government, academic or business contracting). We prefer to go with the broader spectrum,” Herzog said.
“We’re a not-for-profit. That doesn’t mean to say we’re for-loss. We’re not here to give out technologies just because they’re fun. That effort needs to be compensated.”
The goal is to see what the business world could do with the technology already developed by Fraunhofer, and to see how Fraunhofer could adapt it to their specific needs.
The potential is pretty much unlimited, Karle said.
The idea is to help companies “extend their capabilities and their research,” by working with them and sharing work CRCG has already done, Karle explained. For instance, he said, CRCG could work with a toy company to add a computer science and graphics aspect to an existing product.
NUWC is doing just that for the Navy with a project titled the Collaborative Visualization Environments for Undersea Battle Space.
“I’m adapting this generic technology to solving undersea warfare problems,” said Jim Mulhearn, an electronics engineer with NUWC. The goal is basically to come up with tools that help the Navy better understand undersea battle spaces.
“It’s a very complex warfare environment right now and any tools we can provide to the Navy will be appreciated,” said Mulhearn, adding that he expanded the scope of his project after learning about CRCG’s technology more than a year-and-a-half ago.
Karle said he believes the timing is good for partnerships with business, because the number of people buying personal computers is increasing, and more people understand how computers operate.
The virtual table could be used one day to train doctors to perform surgery, according to Karle. Users can manipulate the projected image and practice delicate procedures. Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are even looking at the device to help them create a simulation program to educate and train people on the ALVIN Deep Submergence Vehicle.
“You might see it in the marketplace in three years,” Karle said.
CRCG is one of 49 not-for-profit research and development institutes around the world owned by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in Munich, Germany. CRCG set up its first U.S. location here in 1994, partly because of an existing relationship with some professors at Brown University.
“We didn’t want to be in Cambridge (Mass.) competing for resources,” Karle added. “It’s better to be a big fish in the pond here.”
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is Germany’s leading organization of institutes of applied research, and it does contract research for industry, the service sector and government, according to its annual report.
It employs some 9,000 people worldwide, about 400 of those people are dedicated to researching computer graphics, Karle said.
Some 25 people are employed by CRCG in Providence and a number of part-time interns, most of whom are pursuing doctorate degrees at local universities.