From turntables to the Titanic:

Eric Lundberg '86 pioneers laser-based positioning system

by Jill Elswick

The prototype for his first invention used mirrors, surplus laser parts, and two phonograph turntables to plot points on the floor.

But from this hodgepodge beginning, Eric Lundberg (civil engineering '86; MS) founded Arc Second, a Sterling, Va.-based company that is the rising star in position measurement systems, with applications from industrial to consumer to Hollywood computer animation.

Lundberg's master's thesis dealt with challenges in construction automation. Time and again, he noticed that positioning was a fundamental problem.

"If you look at the way field construction is done today, it relies on strings, plumb lines, and tape measures," says Lundberg. "We said, 'Hey, if we were able to automate that, we would really have something.' "

Working with electrical engineering professor Tim Pratt and Yvan Beliveau, head of the building construction department, Lundberg was determined to merge computer-aided design (CAD) technology with the nitty-gritty of field work.

The team began searching for the holy grail -- a 3-D "mouse" that would enable a construction worker to navigate in real space according to the architect's intentions. The hand-held device would tell the worker precisely where two walls intersect, for example.

After nine months of hard thinking, Lundberg and the professors hit on an idea so clever they decided to start a business with it.

Laser transmitters mounted on tall tripods would replace the humble turntables that Lundberg had used to triangulate laser beams in his 2-D positioning tests. A hand-held wand tipped with optical sensors would "read" the intersecting planes of laser light and display XYZ coordinates, relative to the laser transmitters, within the accuracy of a millimeter.

Coordinates collected by touching the tip of the wand to strategic places on the object would create a rotatable 3-D image -- or "point cloud" -- of the object on a computer screen. The system's technology is based on the mathematical principle that three intersecting planes create a point.

The idea was not just novel, it was revolutionary.

The year was 1990. Lundberg was working on his Ph.D. at Tech. But the opportunity to invent and market a 3-D position measurement system eclipsed his post-graduate studies. He went to work full-time at the start-up company, which was then dubbed Spatial Positioning Systems, Inc.

When the company built its first 3-D system, a consortium was formed among interested companies, including Bechtel, DuPont, Motorola, Amoco, and Intergraph (CAD software), to fund the fledgling company's efforts. Lundberg's company had achieved where others, even multi-million-dollar enterprises in the field of optics and photography, had failed.

In 1995, the company introduced its first product. It sold and delivered six units of the $100,000 device, one each to Bechtel and a Japanese company. North Carolina State University bought one for its robotics lab. The U.S. Navy bought one to model aircraft. Lockheed Martin bought one for waste site remediation in Idaho Falls. Disney bought one to help animate a Jurassic Park-like movie currently in production.

The young company soon had a backlog of orders. Unfortunately, design flaws and manufacturing problems put a halt to production. A new, more refined version of the product is being designed now.

"We plan on having thousands of units out the door over the next couple of years," says Lundberg.

During the first five years, the company was based at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. Lundberg basically ran the whole business. But when sales took off in 1995, Lundberg pursued seasoned executive help. An investor with experience running a $400-million company is now CEO of the company, which recently changed its name to Arc Second.

"I won't say it was easy; it wasn't," says Lundberg of his decision to concede the helm. "But you have to recognize when to let go. The company and its success is more important than your ego." Lundberg now heads operations for Arc Second.

Arc Second currently employs 20 people, including three other Tech alumni: Jeff Skolnick (civil engineering '85; M.S.) is in charge of applications software; Sean Beliveau (civil engineering '93) is an applications engineer; and Doug Gaff (electrical engineering '93; M.S.) is an embedded software engineer.

Andrew Dornbusch (math '90), a founding employee who helped Lundberg build the first prototype and was an inventor on five subsequent patents, left Arc Second in 1996 for graduate school. Professors Pratt and Beliveau remain on the board of directors.

Arc Second holds six patents, with more pending. An initial public offering is expected in the year 2000.

Arc Second has received a lot of publicity for its role in animating the ship in the motion picture phenomenon, Titanic. Director James Cameron's crew built a 45-foot, excruciatingly detailed model of the Titanic, and hired Arc Second to create a dimensionally accurate computer model of the ship. The model took about 6,000 points to create.

In the past, this sort of animation had been done by trial and error. Had Titanic's animators had to work that way, "it would have taken them just forever to do it," says Lundberg.

Publicity from Titanic has been great, says Lundberg, but "all this movie stuff is really a sideline." Arc Second has other, potentially more lucrative pursuits. The technology's ability to track the position of a viewer's head in virtual reality simulations means that images could be seen without the need for heavy, motion-limiting headgear.

"Everything in the computer world is going towards 3-D," says Lundberg, "and lots of companies are spending money on a 3-D Internet where you actually go into environments instead of seeing web pages."

But 3-D Internet is probably at least four or five years out, so Lundberg envisions another consumer application for the near future -- home remodeling. Using Arc Second's system, people could generate a 3-D computer model of any room in their house, grab 3-D images of furniture from manufacturers' websites, and arrange their new decor.

Arc Second's challenge will be to stay focused. "There are more applications than we can possibly follow at one time," says Lundberg.

Applications currently being developed include combining the technology with medical MRIs to minimize the invasiveness of brain surgery. Arc Second is also talking with the movie industry about putting positioning systems on cameras. And the company is preparing to digitize the greens of Pinehurst's famous golf course for use in televising the 1999 U.S. Open.

Lundberg couldn't be more thrilled with his company's success. "What's neat is this is the only job I've ever had. And I plan to keep it that way," he says.

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