For most of its history, Evans & Sutherland has flown like a stealth bomber, just below the radar of mainstream computing.
But now the technology it perfected for military and commercial aviation training simulations is getting broader exposure in surprising venues. Like the nightly television news.In January Evans & Sutherland formed the Digital Studio unit to produce affordable, real-time digital imaging systems for the television, film, video, corporate training and multimedia industries.
Two weeks ago Evans & Sutherland announced its Digital Studio business has formed an al-li-ance with Video West Pro-duc-tions, a subsidiary of Bonneville International Corp. of Salt Lake City, to produce real-time virtual sets.
Using Evans & Sutherland's MindSet software and hardware, a television station could, for instance, make it appear a sportscaster is standing in Cougar Stadium - when he's actually in the studio - as he talks about Brigham Young University's foot-ball team.
The company already has sold one MindSet 200 Virtual Set system to the High Tech Center Babels-berg, located near Berlin, Germany. The filmmaking center will use it to produce content for television, film and multimedia projects.
"We've done in a very short time - less that a year - what other companies spent years doing," said James R. Oyler, the lanky, laser-focused president and chief executive officer of Evans & Sutherland. "Because we had the technology at our fingertips, we announced a product that cost 90 percent less than our com-petitor's."
Evans & Sutherland is closing fast on a diverse multimedia future as it parlays its central technologies into mainstream com-mer-cial computing uses: a Virtual Glider, taking people on "trips" into black holes or re-creating a "drive" through Salt Lake City circa 1896.
"This is the most fun you can have and still be calling it work," Oyler said.
Oyler gets credit for Evans & Sutherland's most recent evolution. He joined the company in December 1994, replacing Rodney W. Rougelot.
At the time Evans & Sutherland was in a revenue slump, caused by declining business from military and commercial aviation customers as both industries downsized.
"The company had fallen on hard times, but it still had a basic core of world-class technology I knew it could expand and build on," Oyler said.
Oyler integrated some operations, streamlined the work force by 20 percent or 200 people and infused the company with new energy.
Despite his initial tough action, Olyer has proved accessible to both customers, employees and the media.
He created an internship program to draw talent from Utah universities and colleges. Olyer also encourages employees to submit potential business projects by sending him e-mail directly or to a committee, and he set up a reward program for employees who pursue patents on developments. Employees get $1,000 when they apply for a patent and $1,000 if it's granted.
The company also hands out quarterly gifts when it meets performance goals. This summer, employees received insulated coolers; once they got T-shirts and another time plastic drink mugs. Oyler also holds company-wide meetings quarterly to review accomplishments, refine goals and answer employees' questions.
"I think people do like that, and I like that, too," Oyler said.
Oyler has focused the company on a cohesive vision, according to employees.
The vision is that Evans & Sutherland will be the premiere company at creating realistic, visual representations within synthetic worlds. Oyler defines the company's mission as improving "people's lives through education and training" via virtual reality.
It doesn't matter whether that virtual world is used by the Air Force to train a pilot of a KC-135 or a weather forecaster to demonstrate how much snow will fall on the Wasatch Front.
ABC News, for example, asked Evans & Sutherland to re-create the final 30 seconds of former Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown's fatal plane crash last April in Bosnia. And the technology has starred in one "Star Trek" movie.
The leap from the military to the movies came after recognition that at a basic level image magic relies on the same technology.
The Digital Studio project follows two other diversification efforts in the entertainment/edu-ca-tion arena: the Virtual Glider, an entertainment ride, and Digistar II, a digital planetarium projection system.
United Artists Theatres has placed glider machines in several of its Starport Centres. "Pilots" strap into an actual hang glider harness and gaze through a goggle screen that makes it look as though they are soaring through a futuristic metropolis or a virtual Grand Canyon.
The glider responds in real-time to the pilot's movements and directions.
Planetariums using Evans & Sutherland Digistar II include Salt Lake City's Hansen Planetarium.
"We've completely revolutionized a 150-year-old industry," Oyler said.
In the pre-Digistar era, astronomers could only calculate past planetary events theoretically. Digistar II made it possible to "roll the heavens back to the age of the dinosaurs" and even beyond, turning scientists into eyewitnesses of cosmic events.
Plus, "it's much more convenient to look at the stars in a nice, warm dome than getting up at 3 a.m., because we can create 3 a.m.," Oyler said - whether it's 3 a.m. Australia or 3 a.m. Antartica.
Next venue for Evans & Sutherland technology could very well be the local travel agency.
At some point in the near future, maybe two to three years, Oyler expects cutting-edge travel agencies will offer virtual demo domes of vacation hot spots so vacation planners can try before they fly.
Which is not to say that Evans & Sutherland's expertise at creating virtual worlds for the military and commercial aviation industries is being forsaken. Far from it.
In December the company introduced its latest visual system, called Harmony, which provides vivid texturing, advanced lighting techniques and high-powered per-formance to create real-time images. Key audience: the military and commercial aviation clients.
"On a technology basis, they have few if any peers," said Jon Peddy, of Jon Peddy Associates, a computer graphics consulting and analyst firm in Tiburon, Calif. "It's hard to find a company that can deliver the expertise Evans & Sutherland does."
Which is why so many firms in need of highly technical visual training rely on the Utah company.
About 80 percent of the world's commercial pilots receive training on Evans & Sutherland simulators. The company has created image data bases of every major airport in the world.
Clients using Evans and Sutherland training systems include Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. The systems include the hardware, software and data bases.
Military organizations use similar Evans & Sutherland systems to create training exercises for air and ground troops.
The military applications are extremely data intensives. Close- combat tactical training data bases for armored tanks and helicopters, for instance, took three years to build and contains 100 gigabytes of information.
Evans & Sutherland's newest image systems contain such detail that a virtual jet pilot practicing carrier manuevers over a simulated ocean sees ripples and eddies on the water's surface.
Evans & Sutherland's move to diversify its products comes just as the computer industry is packing mainframe level power in desktop and workstation computers.
The company got a public boost at the annual fall COMDEX convention, the largest computer industry gathering in the country. Last November during his keynote speech, Intel Chairman Andrew S. Grove relied on Evans & Sutherland image technology to demonstrate the multimedia gyrations future microprocessors will handle.
Grove's point was that personal computers by the year 2000 will be capable of running advanced graphics now limited to high-end image simulators.
It took 11 parallel micro-pro-cessors to run the Evans & Sutherland data bases used at COMDEX. But the possibility of creating vividly realistic synthetic worlds on a desktop computer isn't mere fantasy, Oyler said.
"What excites me is the chance to develop at the high end and migrate down to the desktop," Oyler said. "There really is no other company in the world doing that.
"Our belief is that we're only at the beginning of this. We're at the edge of doing things that have been too expensive to do in the past," Oyler said.
Evans & Sutherland
Headquarters: 600 Koman Drive, University of Utah Research Park
Founded: 1968 by David C. Evans and Ivan E. Sutherland
Business: Develops and manufactures hardware and software for highly realistic visual systems that produce vivid 3-D graphics and synthetic environments.
Customers: Major airlines, U.S. and international militaries, NASA, aerospace companies, auto manufacturers, museums, planetariums, movie industry, media organizations and pharmeceutical companies.
Leadership: Stewart Carrell, chairman; James R. Oyler, president and chief executive officer; Gary E. Meredith, senior vice president; John T. Lemley, vice president and chief financial officer.
Employees: 800 worldwide, most of whom are in Utah. Also has small offices and representatives in Orlando, Fla.; Massachusetts; Irving, Texas; the United Kingdom; Germany; Tokyo; and Beijing, China.
Developments: Introduced MindSet, an integrated virtual set system for the broadcast and film industries; Realimage technology, which produces workstation quality 3-D graphics on personal computers; Harmony, a 3-D graphics system for Windows NT workstations.
Stock: Trades under the NASDAQ symbol ESCC. Pasy year stock price range: $19 1/2 to $29. Recent price: $24 3/4
Finances: Fiscal 1996 revenues through first nine months were $91.3 million.