Taking after the acronym for the medical technology that preceded it (the CAT scan), the FaroArm seems to have had nine lives.
Developed by $40-million Faro Technologies Inc., based in Lake Mary, Fla., the portable penlike instrument measures objects and, in tandem with analytic software, casts a three-dimensional representation of those objects on a computer screen. Its first life was as a device to diagnose knee injuries, and it moved up the anatomical ladder from there: it detected curvature of the spine in children and then helped neurosurgeons navigate the brain as they searched for tumors.
In 1994 the FaroArm leaped from medical to industrial applications. Manufacturers of products ranging from furniture to cars bought it to aid in tasks like crafting historic reproductions or measuring components (car fenders, say, or jet fuel systems) against a computer-generated mathematical model as they rolled off the assembly line. "The FaroArm has been used for everything from brains to planes," says Simon Raab, cofounder and CEO of the 15-year-old company.
Particularly intriguing are the instrument's reverse-engineering capabilities. Architects, for example, have used the FaroArm to determine the real-world dimensions of a building from a cardboard model. First they link the device to a computer loaded with design software. Then they use it to trace the model's contours. The data are run through the design program and emerge on the computer screen as a three-dimensional mesh representation drawn to scale. The architects can refine their designs right on screen. And animators have fed the dimensions of a clay model into a computer equipped with the FaroArm to puzzle out how to make their creatures walk. Casper the Friendly Ghost, notes Raab, earned his haunting stripes that way.