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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 1, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 10
APL Startup Company Transforms 3-D Imaging Technology

By Helen Worth
Applied Physics Laboratory

A new startup company has emerged from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory with a product that processes millions of data points recorded from airborne and ground-based devices — in real time — and turns them into lifelike 3-D graphics that can be used by standard personal computers, saving hours of processing time and millions in budgets for civilian and government users.

The new company, Applied Imagery, is experiencing commercial success well beyond the norm for a startup. The company's president, Chris Parker, attributes this accomplishment to QT Viewer, a unique software program that was the catalyst for his company.

APL developed the software for a defense project that involved collecting data using airborne lidar surveys — a process that uses laser light pulses — and producing 3-D images of the ground. The challenge was to find a way to process huge amounts of data without crashing the user's computer. "They really needed a multimillion-dollar supercomputer to process the data from many millions of light pulses, and that wasn't an option," says APL physicist Michael Roth. "What we had to do was foment a revolution in imaging."

Roth and APL software engineer Kevin Murphy brainstormed ideas, starting with the 3-D video cards used by the video game industry to produce lifelike animation. "We took what video cards were good at and then built what we needed around that," Murphy says. They created a series of algorithms to manage huge amounts of information based on the "quad trees" data-storage and retrieval method (thus the software's name: QT Viewer) that proved effective for processing digital topographic and feature data.

They discovered that they could process lidar data in real time with QT Viewer, giving them the pictures they needed immediately and in a virtual reality interactive format that provided options: a panoramic view; the ability to zoom in on and around natural landforms and structures; and also the capability to study the terrain through a line-of-sight vantage point.

Depending on what a user needs, the software can provide a high-resolution real-time display of an area, such as the entire city of Washington, D.C., with data samples every 18 inches, or concentrate on a smaller area using a laser snapshot with samples every four inches. The user can even drop a "person" into the middle of a scene and ask the system to reveal what the person can see from any vantage point.

"This is the best lidar visualization tool on the market," Parker says. "That's what users are saying. It's given them a way to process enormous amounts of data, very quickly, without crashing their computers. They can 'walk' through landscapes and cityscapes, see around buildings and see the terrain from any perspective. It's an amazing technology, and it's fun to use, too."

The software's capability has been expanded recently to support more file formats for exporting and importing data, and to deliver more powerful analytical tools. Applied Imagery has also created two new software packages: QT Reader, for what Parker calls the "casual" user; and QT Modeler, designed for those who want to create new data file models.

"Lidar is an emerging technology, and Applied Imagery has a significant role to play in its use," Parker says. "We have a niche product, but I expect we will do well as the lidar market grows and people realize how useful three-dimensional geospatial data is."

Applied Imagery is located in the Silver Spring Innovation Center, a high-tech company incubator in Montgomery County.

APL's Office of Technology Transfer facilitates the transfer of APL-developed technology to business and industry to benefit the public and foster economic development. Additional information on the office can be found at


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