In this 1985 photo, Lucasfilm managing director Edwin Catmull points to an image of a woman's pelvis, displayed on the Pixar monitor developed by his company. The Pixar monitor allowed CAT scan images to be viewed in 3D, with higher resolution and in more detail. Image: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG

Pixar's 1986 Imaging Computer Was So Advanced, It Changed Medicine

It’s a reminder that Pixar could have been a very different company.

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Dec 15 2016, 3:15pm

In this 1985 photo, Lucasfilm managing director Edwin Catmull points to an image of a woman's pelvis, displayed on the Pixar monitor developed by his company. The Pixar monitor allowed CAT scan images to be viewed in 3D, with higher resolution and in more detail. Image: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG

Unless there's an unexpectedly huge surge in Doctor Strange's box-office take in the next couple of weeks, odds are high that the highest-grossing US film of the year is going to be Finding Dory.

Which makes sense. The Disney-owned Pixar is incredibly well-known for its family-friendly movies. But less known or appreciated is the company's early attempts to find a use for its 3D-imaging technology in the medical world.

The film industry saw the appeal of the high-tech imaging right away—as highlighted by LucasFilm's early role with Pixar—but the company initially struggled to find a use case for the technology, in part because it was so expensive. The Pixar Image Computer, released in 1986 around the time that Steve Jobs had purchased the company, was far ahead of its time, but could only be afforded in a few contexts, including in the medical space. The devices—initially sold for $135,000 but later for $30,000—drew a large chunk of its purchases from medical facilities, where the imaging technology was well-suited for CAT scans. (Above, Pixar co-founder and president Ed Catmull is shown with one of the company's high-resolution monitors.)

The high cost kept uptake of the technology modest at best, but innovated in some important ways—many of which later showed up in Pixar films.

"We started off with customers in the medical industry, the graphic arts industry, and the intelligence industry," Steve Jobs stated in To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios. "We invented software to do volumetric rendering for medical imaging. We'd take CAT scan data and rebuild the volume computationally, and use the Pixar Image Computer to do that and display it. You could actually rotate the image and cut it in various ways—nobody had ever seen anything like this. Now it's fairly commonplace, but most people don't know Pixar invented that."

Last year, Catmull went back to his medical roots when he co-authored a paper in the Journal of the American College of Radiology titled "From Toy Story to CT Scans: Lessons From Pixar for Radiology."

It's a reminder that Pixar could have been a very different company.

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature (well, this is the first!) where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives to give you a brief jolt of tech history.