Virtual reality on George Street

Cave transports students and professors into virtual worlds

By
Saturday, January 20, 2007

Virtual reality may seem more like science fiction than an academic resource, but it can be an essential research tool for professors and students across disciplines. The Herald explores “the Cave,” Brown’s own virtual reality simulator.From the outside, the one-story building on the corner of Brook and George streets reveals little of what goes on at the Center for Advanced Scientific Computation and Visualization. The building houses Brown’s first virtual reality lab, otherwise known as “the Cave.” Despite its evocative name, the Cave is actually an 8-by-8 foot white cubicle. Projectors along its ceiling allow the Cave’s three walls and floor to operate as film screens.Before entering the Cave, participants don a pair of stereographic lenses – the glasses used to view 3-D movies. But unlike a 3-D movie, in which images look the same regardless of the viewer’s position, images in the Cave change as viewers move, simulating the appearance of a fully developed, 3-D environment.Viewers can interact with the simulated objects in various ways, such as walking around them, stepping on them or ducking under them. “You feel pretty immersed,” Daniel Acevedo GS said of being in the Cave.Early Cave dwellersThe Cave first opened in 1998 after the University received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a virtual reality simulator. Brown’s Cave is one of several hundred in the world, but it is the only one in the northeast, said Professor of Computer Science Andries van Dam.The Cave is housed in the University’s former computing lab, a building designed by renowned architect Philip Johnson in 1961. When the computing lab moved to the Center for Information Technology in 1987, the under-utilized building was deemed a “natural place” for the Cave, said Robert Coover, an adjunct professor of literary arts who makes use of the facility for his LR 111: “Cave Writing” class. When it was constructed, the Cave was primarily intended for scientific research, but departments across the academic spectrum now use it. Cave activities range from “Cave painting” to exploring virtual archeological ruins and even navigating the Martian landscape, according to the Cave’s Web site. Virtual reality is a valuable resource not just for academic purposes but also for product research and development in the corporate world, van Dam said. Among the many uses of virtual reality are training tugboat captains and designing car interiors, van Dam said.Intrepid spelunkers: Cave researchEytan Kurshan ’08 said he was disappointed when he saw the Cave for the first time during a lab for GE 5: “Mars, Moon, and the Earth.” “I remember I was expecting a real cave, as if it were on Mars,” he said.Kurshan said despite the initial letdown, he soon realized that the virtual reality lab was “freaking sweet.” Students in Kurshan’s geology class guided a Mars rover across a virtual Martian terrain projected on the Cave’s walls.Students are not alone in exploring the Cave’s many possibilities, as Brown professors use the virtual reality facility in their research. Sharon Swartz, associate professor of biology, is using the Cave to research the flight of bats. The Cave enabled her to see the movement of bats in three dimensions, according to Acevedo, who is a teaching assistant for CS 137: “Virtual Reality Design for Sciences.”Van Dam said working in a virtual reality environment is at times easier because it allows scientists to analyze their research in greater detail. “There is evidence that it lets people examine data and find features more rapidly (in virtual reality) than they could in a conventional desktop display,” he said.The Cave’s dimensions allow scientists to analyze research in greater detail and are one of its advantages over a conventional desktop, van Dam added. “Bigger is better,” he said.Being able to move around and look at objects from different perspectives also makes it easier to spot features, van Dam said.Despite its advantages, the Cave has technological limitations. Because it is only 8 feet across, traveling across longer distances requires the user to “teleport” with a joystick. This movement often leads to nauseating “cyber-sickness,” which is caused by a disconnect between perceived and actual movement, Acevedo said.When it was first built, the Cave was considered the most advanced in its field, but virtual reality technology has since improved, van Dam said. “(The Cave’s) not obsolete, it still can do useful work, but it’s no longer state of the art,” he said.Cave artistsAs a literary arts professor, Coover’s use of virtual reality may seem unusual. His cave writing class defies convention by integrating the Cave’s technology with poetry and other types of written compositions. The class – capped at 12 people – attracts students from multiple disciplines, he said.When he first offered the class in 2002, Coover said it generated lot of enthusiasm. “We had a lot of good ideas,” he said. Until recently, students in the class were required to know how to program the Cave pieces themselves, which limited the class to students with computer science backgrounds. Now, a new program allows students to design pieces without any computer code knowledge, Coover said. Cave writing pieces combine visual effects, movement and sound with written work. “(It is) a strange reading experience – you read visually and hear the text as if it were speaking to you,” Coover said.Writers aren’t the only artists settling in the Cave. The class Acevedo assists, CS 137, teaches students how to design virtual subjects for scientific research. Half the students are from the Rhode Island School of Design, Acevedo said. Though not an art class, the course attracts students with design backgrounds who often have an intuitive sense of “how to make images look balanced,” Acevedo said.The Cave also allows designers to do things they would not be able to do in real life. “In a computer, there is no gravity if you don’t want there to be,” Acevedo said.Because of this, a student can paint a virtual brushstroke and suspend it in midair.Yet despite the advantages of designing in the Cave, the process can sometimes be difficult, Acevedo said. A person drawing in mid-air can’t feel the surface he or she is working on, which makes it difficult to draw straight lines. It’s particularly difficult to draw a cube, Acevedo said, because getting the virtual lines to meet is challenging.Van Dam said he was delighted to see the different ways students and professors are using the Cave’s virtual reality technology. “It’s really a valuable resource for Brown,” he said.