Re-creating dimensions of life and history

Direct Dimensions guides surgeons, engineers and juries with its computerized modeling in 3-D

September 28, 2006|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN REPORTER

The light moved slowly over the casting of a dinosaur bone, up and down, side to side, scanning as many as 19,500 points per second that streamed into a computer.

A small group from the Johns Hopkins University watched as a 3-D image formed on the screen. One by one, all the bone castings they had brought to Direct Dimensions Inc. in Owings Mills would be translated into digital images.

The images would then be fitted together to re-create the skull of a hadrosauroid, a dinosaur that roamed the Earth eons ago, allowing the researchers to open and close its virtual jaw. The goal: to better understand what it ate and, thus, more about the area in the Gobi Desert where the bones were uncovered.

"These animals have been extinct, at least this particular one, for at least 65 million years," said David Weishampel, a dinosaur paleontologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution. With the computerized image, "you can fine-tune it better than you can by hand."

Re-creating a dinosaur's skull is just one of thousands of projects that 11-year-old Direct Dimensions has taken on. The company uses various scanning systems to capture objects large and small, and software to convert the data into precise 3-D computer images. The technology can be used for a variety of purposes, from creating models to ensuring manufacturing quality. Direct Dimensions scans have been used to:

Help develop prosthetic ears and noses.

Design shoes.

Digitize the model for luge sleds used in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Virtually reconstruct skulls that forensic anthropologists can then use to build a virtual face.

Re-create robbery scenes, such as an entire bank, so the images can be shown to a jury.

Make gloves that are an exact fit for NASA astronauts to allow maximum dexterity.

Create a 3-D digital model of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery that could be used to build an eventual replacement.

Direct Dimensions mostly buys other companies' technologies, customizes them and uses them to scan anything from sports stars to sculptures to stadiums for clients worldwide.

Once Direct Dimensions scans an item, software is used to convert the data into a 3-D computer model that can be manipulated in a variety of ways.

The scan of a person's left ear, for instance, can be mirrored to make a precise computer image of a right ear, which could then be used to help create a prosthetic for that person, company officials said.

The range of projects and the depth of detail the company can create are what distinguish Direct Dimensions from its competitors, said Michael Raphael, the company's president and chief engineer. And the future, company officials say, has even more promise, such as allowing retailers to customize clothing for each customer.

"In theory, someday in the future you'll be able to walk into a store and they'll scan you," envisions Charlie Matlin, Direct Dimensions' sales and operations manager.

"Next to each piece of clothing would be a monitor. You put your key card in, it shows you in [that piece of clothing], and if you like it, you can have it made for you," Matlin said.

For now, Direct Dimensions' projects vary in scope and time frame. Some can be done in minutes, and others take days. The company scanned the Tomb of the Unknowns in about 10 hours over two days, Raphael said. The images will be made available to whoever repairs or replaces the tomb, which is cracking.

"Ultimately we feel that replacement will be necessary, if not in the immediate future, at some point," said Tom Sherlock, Arlington National Cemetery historian. "And obviously we'd want to have it replaced as close as possible to what the existing tomb is, and this type of technology ... is one of the best ways to capture what we have presently in place."

Founded in 1995, Direct Dimensions was born out of an idea Raphael developed when working as an aerospace engineer for what was then Martin Marietta Corp. There, he was responsible for solving manufacturing problems and found a need for advanced 3-D measuring technology to help with fitting and contour problems that arose during the construction of aerospace structures.

Raphael and his colleagues connected with a medical device company in Florida whose products included 3-D technology to measure spine curvature, but it would take much collaboration with FARO Technologies Inc. before the equipment was ready for the factory floor.

Once the project was complete, Raphael figured that "if Martin Marietta needs it, other companies need it."

And so he and his then boss started their own scanning business: Direct Dimensions. His co-founder has since left the company.

Privately held Direct Dimensions is not venture-backed, though Raphael said the company is currently seeking private or equity funding. Raphael says the 18-employee business has been profitable since Day 1, with sales this year expected to reach $3 million.

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