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Tricorder - by zho, 20th April '99 (Part 1 of 3)

INTRODUCTION
Let me begin with the briefest of thumbnail sketches of the company, and with a declaration of interest.

Tricorder is an early-stage high technology company which has, in essence, developed a 3D digital camera for use with personal computers (PCs). This is a software-based technology which exploits standard peripherals, such as PCs and digital cameras. Actual and planned products are categorised as static (i.e. fixed or immobile), handheld, and software-only. The company recently started sales of 'Visage', the first of a family of static products. It plans to follow up with its first handheld camera, and then with a mass-market software version of the technology which will enable consumer digital camera users to produce 3D graphics in their PCs. The markets for each of these products is vast in relation to the size of the company and this offers investors the possibility of considerable returns, but it should also be remembered that investment in early-stage companies carries an inherently high risk.

I am an active shareholder and have attended general meetings at which I have talked to board members and development engineers, seen the Visage in operation, and seen working prototypes of handheld and software-only products.

TECHNOLOGY - STATIC PRODUCTS
The technology is based around proprietary software which processes digital pictures taken with standard still or video cameras.

How does it work? A small semiconductor laser projects a mesh of tiny squares on to the object to be scanned and so each square is distorted by the surface geometry. Two or more cameras photograph different views of the object, and the software solves the complex registration problem of stitching together the constituent squares into a 3D graphic: this can then be rotated, tilted or magnified in any standard web browser.

The 4 cameras used in the Visage are not sufficient to offer a 100% wrap of the object but further cameras can easily be added to provide information on the object's 'back view'. The current limit is 132 cameras, and such a system can be used to photograph large objects, such as cars, in considerable detail. Capture is instantaneous however many cameras are used, although post-processing - for example into NURBS, an elegant mathematical description of 3D surface geometry - takes a few minutes.

Mathematicians delight in calling the core registration problem non-trivial - something of an in-group understatement - but a December press release reveals that Tricorder engineers have gone one step further. In announcing the Prima Facie (a repackaged Visage aimed specifically at the reconstructive surgery market), the release explains that this can "capture a face going from repose to smile, enabling the surgeon to analyse the effects of the smile on the muscles." This is significant, because it means that the technology can be used to process real-time video for animation purposes. Now that is non-trivial.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE - STATIC PRODUCTS

* Capture is virtually instantaneous (0.008 second) and this confers a key competitive advantage because it allows scanning of live subjects. Each of the competing technologies - e.g. ultrasound tracking, electromagnetic tracking and laser stripe scanning - has advantages and disadvantages, but the only one which comes close in this respect is a 'handheld' laser scanner which offers a scanning time of 0.6 seconds but which needs several scans to build up a complete image.

Other advantages, common with those of handheld products (see below), include:

* Ease of use - comparatively little training is required.

* Economies of scale from software-based technology.

* Platform independence. These are open systems which can be used by anyone with a fast PC. All major file formats are supported, including Wavefront, AutoCad and VRML.


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