Originally published in Business Digest, July 1997

From F-15s to Jurassic Park

by Craig C. Bailey

In a narrow aisle between rows of cubicles, inside a 17,000-square-foot office and manufacturing structure in Colchester, Phil Cooper is inspecting a recent shipment. This particular morning's delivery contains none of the materials most electrical manufacturing firms would typically receive. Then again, perhaps Polhemus isn't typical.

Lined up along the cubical walls are several full-sized, framed movie posters, all representative of films that have employed the highly specialized motion capture and 3-D digitizing systems the firm manufactures and sells to film and video production houses and the like. The task Cooper is considering, and is clearly enjoying, is determining where to display each poster within the facility for maximum impact, "not only to show off to our visitors," he says, "but to give our employees something to be proud of."

Over the course of the company's almost 30 year history -- more than 30 if you include the business's Michigan predecessor -- the firm has made a graceful if not unlikely transition: shifting focus from serving the Pentagon military machine to catering to the movie-making machine of Hollywood. And as films compete to make a bigger and bigger box office boom -- with actors increasingly playing second fiddle to splashy special effects -- Polhemus is one company that's well-positioned for the future.

That choice of words is a highly appropriate description of the firm that Bill Polhemus started in 1964: Determining an object's position and orientation in a three-dimensional space is at the heart of the company's mission, whether the application is knocking fighter jets out of the sky or movie-goers out of their seats.

[Phil Cooper]For accuracy in calibrating a helmet-mounted display tracking system it's developing for Air Force pilots, Polhemus uses the environment of an F-15 cockpit. Phil Cooper says his firm's military commitments will be reduced to zero within five years. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

The firm's founder began the business in Ann Arbor, Mich., as Polhemus Associates, a 12-person engineering studies company working on projects related to navigation for the U.S. Department of Transportation and similar European and Canadian departments.

"I had grown up in New England," Polhemus says of his Worcester, Mass., upbringing, "and had spent a couple of summers on Lake Champlain." In the late 1960s, he explains, an airplane flight over the lake triggered fond memories of the Green Mountains. "I finally convinced the team members that all the good things that are written up in Vermont Life are probably true," he says, "and with no more business analysis than that, we made the move."

Relocating to Malletts Bay in 1969, Polhemus Associates brought 10 families in tow. "Almost all of the business that we were involved in was outside of the state of Michigan anyway," Polhemus offers. "So it was just changing our point of departure for our marketing trips and alike."

Soon the company went beyond studies and began dabbling in hardware. And in late 1970, after an influx of what Polhemus calls "a very clever team from a division of Northrop Corp. (now Northrop Grumman Corp.) that had a lot of experience in development of miniaturized inertial and magnetic devices," the firm changed its name to Polhemus Navigation Sciences, later shortened to Polhemus, and incorporated in Vermont.

"Ultimately they met up with some folks in the military who were trying to develop a replacement for a helmet-mounted display tracking system for the Air Force," says Cooper, president of the company, who joined in the late 1980s. "The Army had a crude system in a helicopter: It was used primarily for air-to-ground kind of combat. It had never made it into a fixed-wing fighter aircraft, and that was the objective of the Air Force.

"What that system does is to track the orientation of the pilot's helmet," he says of the electromagnetic technology Polhemus pioneered. "The ultimate objective is to optically project an image on the visor of the pilot's helmet so he can look anywhere and have the display that he needs. ... It's critical to know, in a situation like that, where the pilot's helmet is pointed, so you know what kind of a display to put up on the visor," he adds before comparing the system to a "head-up display" or "gun sight," which projects similar data onto an aircraft's windshield.

"Before the advent of these helmet-mounted displays for military pilots," Cooper explains, "the way air-to-air combat was conducted was to point your airplane at the other guy -- all the way back since Baron von Richthofen. This is a dramatic departure from that: All you have to do it turn your head."

Polhemus says his firm was supported for a few years in the early 1970s by Air Force contracts. But by late 1973, "in the absence of any equity capital to speak of, we just ran dry," in his words. "By that time, however, the device looked attractive to a number of companies, and there were several bids for it. We finally wound up selling to the Austin Company," a large conglomerate with headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio.

The next few years saw the company change hands to McDonnell Douglas Corp. of St. Louis, Mo., and then to the current owner, Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics Corp. of Foster City, Calif., in 1988.

That's where Cooper, at the time an employee of Kaiser Electronics, one of the nearly dozen divisions of its $300 million plus parent company, enters the picture. "I did investigations of mergers and acquisitions for the corporate office," he explains. "This was one of the companies I investigated, and I liked it very much. So I proposed to the corporate office that they let me try a little line management for a while. They said, 'Fine,' and here I am."

Cooper says the early helmet tracking technology Polhemus developed is still in use today, but, "surprisingly enough, our military has still not fielded a helmet-mounted display in a tactical fighter aircraft, even though other countries have." He cites "inertia" and "conservatism" as reasons why, and adds that his company has completed a contract with the Army that will put the system into the next generation Commanche helicopter. "And we are just in the process of completing and flight testing a new design for the Air Force," he adds.

"We told the Air Force that we needed the exact environment in which our tracker was going to perform, so they basically took a chain saw and cut off the front and the back and sent us this F-15," he says, standing next to the amputated cockpit of the crippled beast, which resided in an aircraft boneyard in the Southwest before it found its way to a workshop at Polhemus' Hercules Drive facility.

Cooper should feel right at home in its presence. A native of Maryland's eastern shore, he performed undergraduate work in electrical engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and San Jose State University in California, before embarking on a career in avionics on the west coast. With time spent at North American Aviation Inc. (now Rockwell International Corp.) and Douglas Aircraft, he returned to school to earn a master's degree in electrical engineering at Stanford.

His first stint at Kaiser began in the mid 1960s, and stretched a decade up to 1975, when he left to work as a U.S. representative for a French firm dealing in electronic aircraft instruments.

"I worked for them for a year -- didn't really enjoy the experience. It wasn't what I'd expected. So I left them to form my own business developing some ideas I had for helicopter instrumentation as well as doing some consulting to keep bread on the table."

With his San Francisco Bay area-based Cooper Avionics Inc., he says, he tackled two major projects. "One was a helicopter landing system for helicopters making instrument approaches to off-shore oil rigs. That was quite successful," he says, adding that he sold his design to a company that is now a division of Honeywell Inc. of Minneapolis, Minn.

"The other project that I worked on was a system for managing the flight profile of a helicopter to minimize operating costs. The result was a software package, which I sold to a British helicopter company."

But, ultimately, Cooper's entrepreneurial endeavor "never reached the point where it would fly on its own," he says, without seeming to realize the pun. "It paid a decent salary, but we were never able to transition from research and development to production." In 1985, he returned to the ranks of Kaiser Electronics, three years before moving on to Polhemus.

Since he arrived at Polhemus in 1988, Cooper says, the firm has seen the amount of military work it does cut in half, with commercial content quadrupling. "We see those kinds of trends continuing," he says. "We look at this company as becoming probably 100 percent commercial in five years. And that's a strategic decision in this era of fairly peaceful times. It's difficult to build a business on the defense department -- particularly difficult to build a small business on the defense department. Large companies like Lockheed Martin have so much diversity and so much economy of scale that they can manage to survive peaks and valleys."

Luckily for Polhemus, the last several years have seen the ramping up of a significant application for the electromagnetic technology the company practically invented: motion capture.

Cooper explains the wave started in the production of television commercials, and is rolling into feature films and video game development. Motion capture is a variation on the theme used in tracking a pilot's helmet: A transmitter creates a series of unique, easily identifiable magnetic fields within a limited space. Tiny receivers are then placed within the field and feed information about their position (three Cartesian coordinates X,Y, Z), as well as their orientation (azimuth, elevation, roll) within that space, to a computer.

"That gives not only the translational position in space, but how it's rotated," according to Cooper. "So that completely describes the movement of any object."

With several receivers attached at strategic points to an actor's body, the motion of the actor can be digitized and used to manipulate a previously defined computer character in real-time, whether it be a cartoon character for a feature film or a dancing soda can for a soft drink commercial. "You can do an animation sequence in a couple of days that might take several months in the classic approach," according to Cooper.

The approach is decidedly different from the traditional method of hand drawing and painting or computer generating each frame of an animated sequence. With motion capture, once the character has been defined and the actor has been wired, the resulting motion sequence is simply videotaped.

Dave Gardy is president of Gardy McGrath International Inc., a Reston, Va., television and video production company, and, coincidentally, a native of Shelburne. (His brother is Burlington City Councilman Matt Gardy.) He says a Polhemus motion capture system saves his firm time and money, while giving more realistic results for the large amount of 3-D animation the company produces.

"It's really interesting and rewarding to see a 3-D model you've designed come to life with the motion you capture with the Polhemus system," he says. Gardy adds his firm is one of the few between New York and Atlanta putting motion capture to use.

"I would say that a fairly small percentage of animation at the moment is being done with true motion capture, but that in five years, it will dominate the process," Cooper says. "People will have a hard time finding a reason to use traditional techniques, because of the cost -- the cost in terms of man-hours."

Primarily an electronics hardware manufacturer, Polhemus makes a half-dozen products, ranging in price from a $1,500 PC-insertable card to a $250,000 stand-alone unit, to get the job done. Cooper expects the firm's 45 employees will generate between $5 million and $10 million in revenues this year, competing with several other companies much larger than Polhemus.

"I'm not sure if this is good or bad, but all those people are selling products that are basically derived from our technology," says Cooper. "This company was the seed from which all those technologies grew." Company literature states the Polhemus line represents 70 percent of the installed user base with 3-D position and orientation measurement devices, a hefty chunk for a small, Vermont firm.

While Cooper says Vermont's quality of life is certainly an attraction for would-be employees, he adds, "I think in terms of attracting the top flight engineering talent when we need it, we're at a disadvantage. I wish that there was more of an infrastructure we could attract from.

"In some respects engineering people these days have become a little cynical and like to have places to jump if they're not happy where they are," he speculates. "And there aren't too many places to jump to from here."

Polhemus might be tucked away in the Green Mountains, but Hollywood's taken notice. In 1994, the firm won a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Beverly Hills, Calif., organization that awards the Oscars. "We were flabbergasted," admits Cooper, who attended the Beverly Hilton ceremony along with the four-member Polhemus engineering team named as the recipient.

The company took the award for development of its 3-D digitizer, a variation of its tracking system that uses a single receiver placed in a stylus that is used to describe the outline of a solid object in three dimensions. "Artists tend to still work with traditional media," Cooper says. "If they're thinking of a new cartoon character, they might first model this character in clay, wood or something. And then it remains, in order to do the modern computer animation, to convert this clay figure into a three dimensional database at a computer workstation. Our three dimensional digitizer does that."

While Cooper says the firm can't be aware of every instance when its products are used, he can rattle off a handful of big-budget films that employed Polhemus's technology: the computer animation spectacle "Toy Story" (1995); director Barry Levinson's "Toys" (1992), starring Robin Williams; Steven Spielberg's monster hit "Jurassic Park" (1993); director James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989); "Batman Returns" (1992); Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast" (1991); and the Arnold Schwarzenegger action films "True Lies" (1994) and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991), both directed by Cameron. ("True Lies" co-star Jamie Lee Curtis presented Polhemus with its Academy Award. "You can just imagine," Cooper chuckles, "she made a big impression on all the guys.")

Based on entertainment applications alone, the firm's future seems to be bright. Tokyo-based video game giant Sega Enterprises Ltd. is the first customer of Polhemus' latest motion capture system, Star-Trak, the company's first wireless system and the unit that transmits the largest magnetic field: 25-by-50 feet. But Cooper also sees medical applications becoming more common in the future. He says 10 to 15 percent of the company's business is already in the medical arena: using magnetic tracking to aid minimally evasive surgery and to custom build prosthetics. It's a trend he expects to accelerate.

More than 20 years after he sold the company that still bears his name, Bill Polhemus is still working in the field. His Polhemus Laboratories Inc. in Cambridge, formed in 1983, has been developing a system similar to the Colchester firm's helmet tracking system, but that puts a high-resolution display on a pair of eyeglasses. He says the Colchester company's resilience is a "lesson that it takes often a very much longer time to bring something to a profitable state when you're starting as a small business."