OFFICE-STYLE VIRTUAL REALITY
Imagine your future office or home computer loading an image of you along with off-site colleagues onto a big flat-panel screen where you can manipulate the 3-D picture, in real-time, to view a common scene from different angles. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory have been awarded a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to make this a reality.
The three-year project called AGAVE-or "Access Grid Autostereo Virtual Environment"-is being led by EVL co-director Thomas DeFanti, UIC Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, and co-director Daniel Sandin, Professor of Art and Design.
"The goal of this grant is to come out with a virtual reality device that people in the scientific community want to use for research and education," said De Fanti. "It will make the case by example that this is a technology that is desirable to mass produce."
UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory enjoys a track record that makes it ideally suited for such a project. Back in 1992, Sandin, DeFanti and their staff developed a room-sized virtual reality theater named the CAVE®. Since then, CAVEs have been networked together all over the world. This allows researchers at scattered CAVE venues to work together on 3-D projects simultaneously.
Three years later, the EVL expanded the CAVE's usefulness when it developed the ImmersaDesk®-a transportable device that allows users to interact with others on shared computer models using either CAVEs or other ImmersaDesks.
The rapid evolution of computer graphics technology, coupled with the increasing speed and bandwidth of today's networks, have turned these devices into practical design tools now widely used in both industry and academia.
But the systems are too large for office use. DeFanti and Sandin want to move a giant, user-friendly step forward, where displays are mounted on office walls and the users do not need to wear special stereo glasses.
DeFanti envisions the initial device using 15 synchronized high-resolution flat-panel screens placed in picture window-like grids on an office wall. Each screen will be driven by one processor in a cluster of special laptop-slender PCs racked nearby.
Sandin has developed an automated technique for interweaving images in real-time, coordinating them with user head motion and the computed simulations to create virtual reality. The new process-called Varrier®-eliminates the need for wearing goggles.
"In my mind, there's no hard barrier regarding computing or networking here. The thing that is holding us back is the display technologies," said DeFanti. An array of screens is used for AGAVE because no single flat-panel display is presently able to display the high-resolution imagery required for 3-D.
DeFanti hopes the AGAVE research, along with parallel advancements in computer and display technology, will help turn this dream device into a reality. "As you drive the cost down and people come up with ways of creating panels by, say, lithography techniques, then you can literally think about replacing the fabric on your cubicle walls with these active screens," he said.
Virtually speaking, any wall or room could be turned into a portal to the world.
CAVE and ImmersaDesk are registered trademarks of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Varrier is a trademark of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. AGAVE is funded by National Science Foundation award #EIA-0115809.
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