First came the mouse, then touch-screen technology. And if Silicon-Valley-based zSpace has its way, the next leap in human-computer interaction will look like something out of your local IMAX Theater.
The company calls it “immersive exploration.” In real terms, zSpace’s eponymous flagship product is a tablet-software combination that allows students to view and manipulate hologram-like three-dimensional images. Moviegoers will recognize the custom glasses users wear to summon forth images from a blurry, 2D existence. Less familiar is the stylus pen, with which clients can rotate, undress, label, and animate the figures floating before them.
At present, zSpace is marketed as a learning tool. The company’s executive vice president, Mike Harper, says more than 60 universities worldwide have purchased zSpace, which retails for about $2,500. The company is also aggressively pitching the product to elementary and secondary schools.
Mr. Harper says zSpace can deliver a “return on investment” in certain academic disciplines. Imagine, for example, a medical school that no longer needs to order cadavers or a biology class that can offer students a frog dissection sans amphibian. For other potential users, such as architecture students, zSpace is a pricey but potentially valuable toy that can augment the learning experience or accelerate research, he says.
Then there are distance learners, for whom Mr. Harper believes zSpace could be a transformative product. “Now an online student can have that laboratory experience,” he says.
The company’s primary challenge is grooming developers to create the 3D apps and images users want. Though the Internet boasts a large and growing library of 3D images—including those available free in Google’s 3D warehouse—Mr. Harper says some professors need applications that perform specialized tasks. For a biologist trying to model molecular structures, a zSpace is only worthwhile if someone has created a program capable of doing exactly that.
The company largely relies on outside providers to supply those applications, although it will seek out developers when a potential buyer asks for specific capabilities. Mr. Harper also points out that users with 3D scanners can upload their own images onto the interface.
As zSpace waits for the 3D-app community to mature, it is plotting improvements for what will become the second generation of its signature technology. Mr. Harper says the company wants to shed the 3D glasses and stylus, allowing users to move the images with only their hands.
In the longer term, zSpace envisions dropping the per-unit price and marketing the technology to gamers. Mr. Harper says there is a history of companies that pilot new technology to academe—where large institutions can absorb the cost—before taking it to the masses. “That’s certainly our road map,” he says.
Besides, he says, it always helps to whet the next generation’s appetite while it’s still in the academic pipeline. “Students represent consumers,” Mr. Harper says.