Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Duke’s virtual reality chamber help with teaching, research

Published in the Dec. 13, 2010, Raleigh News & Observer and the Dec. 13, 2010, Charlotte Observer


DURHAM — At first, the walls of the six-sided room are covered with a dull plaid test pattern.

But press a button, and a giant 3-D brain suddenly appears in mid-air. Click a few more keys, and an entire city stretches ahead – just like in a “Star Trek” holodeck.

The room is a sci-fi fantasy for real. It’s the Duke immersive Visual Environment, a six-sided structure that, when sealed, becomes a seamless virtual reality atmosphere built to enhance teaching, research and design planning.

Housed at the Pratt School of Engineering, DiVE is the only room of its kind on the East Coast. Only three other American universities – the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa – have six-sided rooms. Several other research groups have three-sided or four-sided chambers.

“There are many activities that should be done in immersive environments,” said Rachael Brady, director of DiVE and Duke’s visualization technology group. “The technology helps people visualize and better understand theirdata.”

For example, a Duke medical student studying to be an orthopedic surgeon has used a virtual driving simulator in DiVE to determine how soon people with bone fractures can safely return to driving.

Biomedical engineering researchers interested in improving cardiac care plan to build giant simulated hearts that they can “crawl” inside.

And the immersive technology is popular with local agencies, businesses and hospitals in the planning and design stages of projects.

Representatives with Triangle Transit, which is planning a three-county light rail project in Wake, Durham and

Jessica Riley, a former student, worked on a DiVE project in which she gave people the sensation of falling.

Orange counties, have visited DiVE recently to determine whether the technology could assist with future projects.

Juanita Shearer-Swink, Triangle Transit’s project manager, said seeing designs in a full-scale space will be more beneficial than looking at them on a computer monitor.

“With DiVE, we will be able to better understand new spaces and learn more about the impact of our designs,” she said. “Not only will we be more cost-effective, but we’ll also be able to use the technology to change environments, test designs in unforeseen conditions, and make changes to projects before we do anything in the real world.”

How the chamber works

The chamber is 10 feet on each side. Each wall, including the floor and ceiling, functions as a large computer screen. Six computers control full-color projectors – one per wall – and a seventh is the master computer.

To use DiVE at its full capacity, users wear stereoscopic glasses made with liquid crystals that provide depth perception.

Unlike 3-D glasses with red and blue lenses, the stereoscopic lenses are colorless, so the wearer can see all colors. The crystals also rotate, making the lenses alternate between transparency and opaqueness. That allows the eyes to fuse the 3-D imaging correctly, eliminating the blurry “ghosting” effect when video images double on the screen, Brady said.

Armed with a wand that tracks their movements and helps them navigate the virtual landscapes, users can be immersed in a believable visual fiction.

“Being inside the cube provides a large field of view,” Brady said. “This is one of the best ways to interact with computer representations of data.”

Why DiVE in?

The University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) first unveiled the technology behind DiVE in 1991. Since then, the capabilities and features of immersion technology have expanded, said Andy Johnson, a computer science researcher and member of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at UIC.

“There have been various changes in technology, and even 20 years later, people are still profoundly affected by what they see when they first walk into the cube,” he said. “It’s a space where people can explore and move around things naturally. It doesn’t feel like a computer.”

Immersive virtual reality has its drawbacks, Johnson said, such as a price tag between $1 million and $4 million and varying degrees of screen resolution. In fact, DiVE’s resolution – 1.1 million pixels per screen – is considered low for this type of technology, Brady said. The University of Iowa’s six-sided chamber has the highest resolution in the country with 16.7 million pixels per wall.

However, immersive environments let users examine information in a tangible way from multiple points of view. For example, General Motors has used the technology since the early 1990s to make design changes on full-size car models before building prototypes, Johnson said.

Brains, spiders and snakes

At Duke, Brady said, the DiVE is helping anatomy students learn complex body systems. A large 3-D brain floats in the middle of the cube, and students walk around it, observing how all its parts fit together. The program can spotlight singular parts to test a student’s knowledge of the brain’s structure.

Unlike a plastic brain model, the program can dissect the brain’s lobes, allowing students to see inside different sections.

Other experiments in the cube can have clinical applications.

A Duke psychologist interested in how people respond to frightening situations uses the cube to test whether patients with phobias react similarly in all environments.

Using DiVE, the researcher introduces spiders and snakes in three different immersive environments – a dining room, a forest and a backyard. According to Brady, the experiments have revealed how people associate fear with memories of locations and have proven immersive environments can be therapeutic tools in cognitive research.

“Although they know the spider or snake isn’t real,” Brady said, “the images are so accurate that many of them will back away quickly or even stomp their feet to get away.”
To read the Raleigh News & Observer article online: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/12/13/859127/dive-cube-looks-like-a-holodeck.html

To read the Charlotte Observer article online: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/12/12/1906890/sci-fi-fantasy-morphs-into-fact.html


December 13, 2010 - Posted by | Education, Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Welcome to my den of horrors: We have spiders, snakes, falling into a pit of BOILING HOT LAVA!

    Some of them are real, some are imaginary. We leave it up to you to determine which is which. No, I’m kidding. They’re all real. You really are going to die.


    Comment by BmoreKarl | December 13, 2010 | Reply

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