Susan Kuchinskas

Jul 21st 2017

3-D Visualizations: Cool New Tools


Humans seem to love 3-D optical illusions. They’re also becoming useful in a variety of sectors.

The tech world got a big boost with the launch of Microsoft’s HoloLens last December, which lets you interact with digital content, providing what’s known as “mixed reality” experiences. While so-called “holograms” may be in vogue, the reality is that many technologies that use that term or the prefix “holo” are not actually using real holographic techniques, but rather, 3-D visualization tech.

On the Job

3-D visualizations can make teleconferencing more engaging, but that’s just the beginning of their potential uses in business. Los Angeles contracting company Martin Bros. has experimented with using 3-D visualizations, produced via the HoloLens, to enable a construction worker to frame out a bathroom, according to Engineering News-Record. The idea is that, instead of having to constantly refer to plans, the worker can keep the design constantly in his or her field of vision.

Prsonas, a company that provides 3-D visualizations for self-service applications, suggests that virtual assistants could replace some human staffers by offering directions to bathrooms and amenities in hotels or stadiums.

Consumer Products

3-D interfaces may seem more natural to the human brain — as well as contribute the cool factor to gadgets. As cars become more automated and fully featured, manufacturers have struggled to find ways to surface all the controls without confusing drivers and making the dashboard look like the cockpit of a jetliner. BMW recently demonstrated the concept of using reflective 3-D visualizations to allow drivers to operate controls with gestures in the air. The full-color display seems to hover in front of the dashboard near the steering wheel, according to Wired.


Tech-minded educators think that 3-D visualizations in the classroom might help students keep engaged with the course material. Teachers already deliver lectures remotely via video conferencing. Making their images 3-D would enhance the illusion of being in a classroom with the teacher, according to EdTechReview. The ability to watch the instructor in 3-D could also make demonstrations more effective. adds that 3-D visualization technology could allow students to tour historical sites and have questions answered by a virtual guide, as well as to perform virtual experiments that might be too dangerous or costly to do for real.


3-D visualizations can enable doctors and surgeons to examine organs and practice procedures virtually, says Smithsonian. Three-dimensional images can be created from two-dimensional scans. The resulting 3-D visualizations can then be rotated and taken apart. One promising use would be to replace invasive colonoscopies with a digital version that takes advantage of CAT-scan imagery.

Another example is to allow heart surgeons to become familiar with a patient’s abnormal heart structure ahead of the complex surgery to repair it.


3-D visualizations can provide the same kind of enhanced information to military personnel, allowing them to better understand geospacial information and intelligence, according to Defense Review. One example is Northrop Grumman’s TouchTable that lets users zoom in and out, draw on it, and pan using hand gestures. The TouchTable has been seen in CNN’s “The Situation Room,” hosted by Wolf Blitzer.

Northrop Grumman Touch Table System in operation

Enhanced learning and more effective medicine are important advances. But what we really want to know is, when will we be able to use the holodeck? While Microsoft’s HoloLens demonstrations look pretty much like the holodeck minus the Star Trek uniforms, physicists at the University of Australia say they’ve invented a 3-D visualization generator that produces Star Trek-quality images. reports that the new material is light enough to be used in astronomical missions, while it has new optical properties that go beyond natural materials.

Beam us up!