Virtual Reality Comes to a University Campus Near You

Electronic 'cave' could help non-engineers understand and contribute to design and engineering projects.

This simulation of a foam material being crushed under a gravitational load is projected in an immersive display room known as the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. New Jersey's Rowan University's new virtual reality system will be able to fit up to 25 people inside a 20-by-20-foot space, surrounded by screens in an immersive, 3D virtual reality environment with which they can interact. Flick/Los Alamos National Laboratory

It's not Minority Report; it's real life. Kind of.

If all goes well, New Jersey's Rowan University students next year will be able to wave their hands to interact with an immersive, three-dimensional computer system with large screens wrapping about 270 degrees around them.

And about 600 miles west at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, people wearing helmets and 3-D glasses explored caves, shopped for groceries, examined ancient artifacts and beat zombies to death with a baseball bat — all without leaving the Smale Interactive Visualization Center.

Rob Cheezum, the director of visual communications for a company called Kaleidoscope, demonstrated a 3-D application in which a user wears 3-D glasses and wields a pen to move objects through various scenarios. At first glance, it might seem to be just for fun, but the device has practical uses too.

“It’s very high-fidelity, so it’s very good for surgical exercises. There’s a demo in here that has some anatomy stuff that kind of hints at that. A lot of the applications don’t have a tactile, immersive feel. This is the best I’ve seen so far,” he said.

At Rowan University, the as-yet-unnamed system will be able to fit up to 25 people inside a 20-by-20-foot space, surrounded by screens in an immersive, 3-D virtual-reality environment with which they can interact.

"This is a tool for engineering design. It is not just a graphics visualization . . . you are actually simulating things," said Shreekanth Mandayam, a Rowan vice president.

Rowan already has a virtual reality system known as the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, where up to four people can don 3-D glasses and step onto a platform where the floor and three walls are all projected surfaces. That existing CAVE system has been in use since 2009 by the university -- and the South Jersey Technology Park, its nonprofit affiliate, where the system resides.

That system has been used to model projects such as flooding patterns in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood, flying drones for the Navy, and rocket engine tests for NASA.

But the researchers and students said they have been itching for more. Their dream: a larger space, where engineers and non-engineers can work together using physical objects such as laptops, desks and blueprints, but with the ability to send information to nearby screens in real time.

"You want reality along with [virtual reality] because that is how people work," said Mandayam, who is also the executive director of the technology park just west of Rowan's main campus. "People work in a team; they have different mixed methods of looking at data, getting data, sharing information."

And the system won't just act as a screen. Sensor-embedded gloves and pointers will make the system interactive, administrators said.

"When you do that physically, right there in a visual environment, not on data spreadsheets, that's where we're headed," said Mira Lalovic-Hand, a Rowan vice president and the university's chief information officer. "After we have this [system], this is our main goal: to have interactive environments with the data."

Talk about those dreams became more serious when, in 2013, the state announced a $1.3 billion funding pot for construction and infrastructure projects at colleges and universities.

Rowan submitted a long wish list, ultimately receiving approval for $117.8 million, including $978,161 for the new virtual reality system. The school must match that amount to pay for the project.

The system is expected to be installed temporarily in the technology park by this time next year; both systems will later be moved to a new building.

One major goal for the enhanced system is to increase the amount of external funding the virtual reality lab generates. The lab has received about $4 million over the last 10 years. The state designated Rowan a research institution last year, and Mandayam says he hopes to see the system generating $1 million in annual external funding within two to three years.

With new capabilities, the lab should end up with equal funding from industry and government, Mandayam said. Until now, it has been engaged largely in government work, he said.

A project like the Cramer Hill flooding models, done for the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, will be able to better include non-engineers in the designing process, Mandayam said. In the larger system, engineers, designers and a graphics team can work alongside policy experts and city residents without advanced technical knowledge.

Mechdyne, the company that builds CAVE systems and the new equipment, has spent about six months designing the larger space to Rowan's specifications.

"We came up with it so that Rowan could use their legacy software content," said Bill Lackner, who leads the project for Mechdyne. "We've never built one like this before."

Other institutions in the region, such as the Navy Yard, have their own CAVE systems, but Rowan says it is the only college or university in New Jersey with one. Mechdyne is building one for Villanova University, using a $1.67 million National Science Foundation grant to the school.

And by making the new system compatible with the current one, Rowan hopes to build on its existing familiarity to leapfrog the learning curve.

"We're not going to have to drastically come up with new ways of doing things," said George D. Lecakes Jr., the director of the Rowan Virtual Reality Laboratory. "It took us about a year in this cave to really get down visuals and how it works. We're better now, so I'm hoping that within six months we'll be ready to roll with just about all the features."

©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Eric Robinette contributed to this story.

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