Hidden somewhere in the 178 square miles that make up the City of San Jose, California, there’s a nondescript warehouse with black plastic taped over most of the windows.
If you manage to sneak a peek inside the front door, you won’t see much — a few odds and ends, props for a school play. But if you step inside on the right day, you might see an IndyCar driver. Or the Vice Premier of Taiwan. Or the cinematographer who’s developing 3D movie technology with director James Cameron.
When Wired visited the warehouse last week, we saw 3D images from the 2012 Marchesa fashion collection and a top secret 3D version of a popular video game, displayed on a screen so large our legs buckled.
The lab is called Area 17, and it’s where Hewlett Packard has been working on an ambitious plan to change the way we watch everything from an Earth, Wind and Fire concert to a corporate training video to a map on the wall of a Pentagon war room.
We can’t tell you where the lab is because HP doesn’t want it burgled. But we can tell you about the software being developed there. It’s called the Photon Engine, and at its heart are cutting-edge algorithms that can take streams from dozens of cameras and then blend them into one massive picture that can be projected back onto any screen.
HP has been tinkering with 3D video and the software behind Photon Engine for years — taking it out of the lab bit-by-bit. It’s been courtside at the National Basketball Association’s Summer League and backstage at Fashion Week in New York, and it even made a pit stop at last month’s fatal IndyCar race in Las Vegas. Now, HP thinks that Photon Engine is ready for more widespread commercial use.
Recently, at a fashion show in New York, the Photon Engine team stitched together 3D images taken from four different cameras and turned them into a lifelike three-dimensional model on a projection screen. You need to wear 3D glasses to see the effect, but the results are remarkable. You can count the beads and see every ripple in the gauze of the slinky Marchesa outfits.
The special thing about the Photon Engine is that it breaks these images out of the 16:9 aspect ratio now standard in digital video.
“We’re not aspect-ratio dependent,” says Carlos Montalvo, vice president with HP’s Innovation Program Office. “We’re really able to capture it aspect ratio appropriately. Any size. If you need a stage, we present it as a stage. If you need a human, we present it in portrait. Because as soon as you try to present a human in 16×9 I’m going to either cut off your head or cut off your legs.”
HP doesn’t need any special camera parts or projectors to pull off its Photon Engine trick. They’ve put together cameras by bolting together a half dozen inexpensive 3D lenses that capture an exceptionally wide shot. To play things back, they set up banks of everyday projectors, which are calibrated — a one-hour process — and then good to go.
In the enterprise, HP thinks this technology could be used to build massive wall-sized 2D projected displays for situation rooms. Think of a 21st-century version of the displays in those Star Wars war rooms where alien commanders track their latest attacks.
Back here on Earth, a lot of control rooms are set up to handle well-defined feeds — a digital map showing which factories are online, for example — but they don’t do so well when there’s other information that everyone needs to see: a YouTube video, or a blog post. “There’s all this other stuff, and they have no way of handling it well,” says Henry Sang, Jr., the associate director of HP Labs’ Technology Transfer Office. “Someone will literally stick up a TV because they’re getting a CNN report.”
But the Photon Engine team has a solution for this problem. They’ve written software that lets users wirelessly connect to the Engine and then add data from their phone our iPad to the overhead feed.
Photon Engine almost didn’t make it to prime time. The project, known by the code-name Pluribus, was nearly abandoned before Phil McKinney, the outgoing chief technology officer with HP’s Personal Systems Group, revived it in February and secured the Area 17 warehouse.
To Sang and others on the team, the warehouse gives them the space to prototype camera and projection systems before they take them out to the basketball court or the concert. But clearly, they like it most because it gives them a place to experiment and set up new systems that feels more like a scrappy start-up than the corporate lab for a massive multinational company.
“HP started in a a garage,and we actually have garage doors on the other side,” Stang says with a note of pride. “So the garage is kind of alive and well.”