Engineer discloses Iowa State's 4,000th invention for possible commercialization

AMES, Iowa - The Iowa State University Research Foundation Inc. has just recorded the 4,000th invention by university researchers since the current numbering system began in 1964.

"These invention disclosures are very important," said Lisa Lorenzen, the executive director of the Iowa State University Research Foundation Inc. and director of the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer. "Our role is to find an industry partner who can best commercialize these technologies. It is very exciting to see ISU technologies in the marketplace and making a difference in people's lives."

Inventions disclosed to the research foundation include advancements in agriculture, biofuels, biotechnology, chemistry, computer technology, engineering, environmental technologies, food safety and materials. The 4,000th invention is software that compresses 3-D animations so they require less storage space on a computer.

Once inventions are disclosed to the research foundation, they're reviewed to see if they can be patented. They're also reviewed for industry interest and commercial potential.

Lorenzen said researchers disclose about 100 inventions a year. Of those, about 50 are patented and about a dozen are licensed for commercial use.

When inventions are licensed and used by industry, one-third of the net revenue goes to the inventor, one-third to the inventor's home college at the university and one-third to the research foundation.

The inventor of the 4,000th technology disclosed at Iowa State is Song Zhang, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. Zhang has been working for a nearly a decade to develop high-resolution, real-time, precise, 3-D imaging technologies. As a doctoral student, he began by developing 3-D animations of lung and chest movements as a new way to diagnose health problems. He is now developing technology that uses a camera, a projector and a personal computer to scan a face and instantly display an accurate 3-D image of every line, contour and movement.

That has Hollywood and video game producers contacting Zhang.

There is, however, a drawback: "All 3-D data and video data are huge," Zhang said. "It's a big problem."

The technology simply requires too much memory to make it practical for entertainment industries.

But Zhang has been working on a solution. He's figured out a way to convert 3-D data to much smaller 2-D files. If the images are converted to high-quality 2-D files, the files can be converted back to 3-D images without a big drop in image quality.

"It's software and code that makes all of this work," Zhang said.

That software could be very useful to entertainment industries. It could also be useful to the development of 3-D cameras for the consumer electronics market.

"We see an exciting future for the work that's coming out of Dr. Zhang's lab," said Eddie Boylston, a technology licensing manager specializing in engineering and physical sciences for Iowa State's Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer. "This has real commercial potential for making 3-D information usable."

Zhang said there's a simple reason he came up with what turned out to be Iowa State's 4,000th invention disclosure.

Because his technology records 3-D images at up to 10,000 frames per second, "It was impossible to store the data," Zhang said. "This was invented because I had to. We were running out of memory to store all the data."