15 March 2011

High Anxiety in Virtual Reality

I am in Room 314 in Rekhi Hall, arms spread wide, tippy-toeing across a rickety board and trying oh-so-hard not to fall into a gaping hole beneath my feet. One misstep and I join the dead cow at the bottom of the pit. An assistant professor of computer science at Michigan Technological University is holding an open house, inviting members of his department to experience virtual reality via a setup that includes a headset, cameras and a computer. What researchers see is displayed in two dimensions on a computer monitor: a country road, a deep hole in the pavement, a board. Nearby, cows graze on a hillside. Across the hole, a young woman watches quizzically.

Four cameras, one in each corner of the room, track LEDs on the headset. As you move, the system senses where you are within the virtual world and changes the display within the headset accordingly. It’s not limited to computer-generated imagery, either. Researchers stitched together a series of photos taken in Utah and loaded the image into the lab equipment, creating a 360-degree, 3D view of Canyonlands National Park. The virtual reality lab can help researchers make other virtual reality programs better and could make better simulators and improve performance for everyone from pilots to neurosurgeons.

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