Enter into the VR Experience
by Tony Wacholtz
The enormous cavern had many tunnels protruding from its center. As we started our journey, we came across many rocks jutting up from the ground resembling the demeanor of a ferocious animal. Continuing on quickly, we entered a large, open area with many other tunnels Exploring the caverns made us feel like we were traveling through a labyrinth maze. In the middle of the open space was a head on a spike. Upon seeing this, we entered a tunnel and began to walk without hesitation. As we crossed a bridge, I noticed we were travelling over a huge, fiery pit. We finally reached our destination, a room with ancient-looking stones everywhere. A giant pendulum swung from side to side amongst the stones. We ventured into the group of stones for a closer look; I turned around and saw the pendulum coming straight at me. I ducked, only to realize the pendulum was part of the virtual reality experience.
A group of 15 students and faculty from Minnesota State University, Mankato, (MSU-M) traveled to Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, Iowa on Feb. 26 for a tour of its virtual reality cave. ISU holds one of only five virtual reality caves in the world; and it is the only one to have a wireless lab. We were fortunate enough to view the most technologically advanced lab at ISU. Originally, we were scheduled to tour the C4 lab; however, we were able to view the C6 lab, which has more realistic graphics, instead. The main difference between the C4 and C6 labs is that the C6 is six-sided while the C4 is only four-sided. Otherwise, each has wireless tracking and navigational capabilities.
Six of us at a time entered a 10- x 10- x 10-foot room with our shoes off and virtual reality goggles on. Dr. James Oliver, the director of the virtual reality cave, was our tour guide through the caves and caverns. The sound system was designed to follow us as we walked to enhance the virtual reality experience with lifelike sounds. There were speakers posted all around the outside of the chamber.
The process of creating the graphics used in the cave is very interesting. The environment is broken down into six points of view: front, behind, left, right, above, and below. Each view is broken down into two additional views: one for the left eye and the other for the right eye. To understand this process, put your hand in front of your left eye and look at an object. Now, put your hand in front of your right eye and look at the same object; your view of the object changes with each eye. Graphic designers use that perspective: each view is combined to make the entire picture.
The supercomputers used to create the cave follow the lifeline of most modern technology: they become obsolete very quickly. Dr. Oliver showed us the room that stores the supercomputers used in producing the virtual reality graphics. The original supercomputers needed to create the graphics are so large that they need their own room at the university. According to Oliver, the supercomputers purchased in 2000 are almost already obsolete. The school is currently working on getting funding to update the lab's technology. ISU is dedicating $10 million dollars for the study of this area, with approximately 30 faculty and 140 graduate and undergraduate students conducting research.
Everyone enjoyed the experience of being able to "venture" into virtual reality. However, one student commented, "I'm a little disappointed. I keep up with the computer gaming scene, and the graphics weren't that impressive. The three-dimensional part was cool, but it wasn't what I had expected." Perhaps, if ISU receives the appropriate funding, it will be able to enhance the lab's graphics to a higher level. Still, not many people get a chance to view the cave, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I was able to experience.
Virtual Reality Applications Center [Web site]. http://www.vrac.iastate.edu/about/labs/c6/index.php (viewed on March 22, 2004).