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
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
"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
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