Michael I. Hyman had a flair for electronics long before he donned 3-D glasses two summers ago to watch the Three Stooges and an Alfred Hitchcock thriller at Baltimore's Charles Theatre.
But it was that illusion of three-dimensional action on a flat screen that inspired the Ellicott City teen-ager to devise a system of computer graphics that recently brought him national recognition and a shot at a $12,000 college scholarship.
Hyman, 17, son of Richard and Roberta Hyman, last week was named one of 40 finalists in the 42nd annual Science Talent Search, a prestigious science competition sponsored by the Westinghouse Electric Corp.
"I'd been interested in math, electronic gizmos, physics and stuff since the sixth grade," the soft-spoken Hyman said. "But when I saw those movies, I was fascinated. I started wondering whether you could give a computer the same thing: an illusion of depth."
At Centennial High School in Ellicott City, where he ranks first in his senior class and participates in the gifted students program, Hyman spent most of a year perfecting a program that, when fed into a computer, projects an apparently three-dimensional line drawing onto a screen.
Similar programs have been used on large computers for years, but Hyman's was one of the first tailored specifically for small, personal computers used by schools and businesses.
"Since the conventional computer display is two-dimensional," said Hyman, whose parents are commercial artists, "you had to rely solely on your imagination--on psycholgical depth cues--to see any depth."
Hyman drafted a program to trick a viewer's brain into thinking the image actually was three-dimensional.
Using a light beam-splitter to separate images into foregrounds and backgrounds, Hyman's system duplicates the work of the eyes: adjusting lines for proper perspective, rotating or contracting them to fit a person's binocular vision.
"I frankly thought we'd run into some real theoretical problems, but Mike came up with the right programs," said James E. Mowbray, a former physics teacher at Centennial and Hyman's mentor for two years. He called Hyman's prize-winning project "a marriage of programming and the physiology and physics of vision."
Mowbray, who now works for a Cockeysville, Md., computer firm, said Hyman was "so quiet and reserved that you would not know outwardly how gifted he was. You have to probe him--or assign him some task--to find out."
Hyman called Mowbray's influence a key to winning several regional and national science competitions. "He was a great teacher, a terrific influence," Hyman said.
Hyman's research project--the happy result of his own own drive, a friendly teacher and special programs for gifted students--is typical of many of the Westinghouse finalists, said Robert Henderson, a spokesman for the company.
New York City-area schools, many of them specializing in science education, are the perennial leaders in the talent search. This year, they produced 19 finalists, 15 more than Florida, their closest competitor.
Hyman has won a clutch of awards with the computer project: first place last spring at the annual Baltimore science fair, a trip to Houston to take first place in a national computer competition and a trip to Hawaii last summer after the Navy honored the project.
Early next month, he and the other finalists will gather in Washington for the final round of project judging by a panel of independent scientists. The students, who already have been awarded $500 each, will vie for scholarships ranging from $12,000 to $5,000.
Hyman, who also is an accomplished artist, hopes to study electronics or computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Princeton University this fall.
"I really don't think of myself as having a real technical bent," he said. "There are too many other things I'm interested in."