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University News

Grant gives new life to the virtual reality Cave

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One minute it’s showing the surface of Mars, and the next there is three-dimensional poetry wrapping its walls. It’s called the Cave, but it’s really just a cube — a virtual reality universe. And it’s currently undergoing a $2 million renovation.

The National Science Foundation awarded the Center for Computation and Visualization, home to the University’s Cave, a grant for renovations in Sept. 2009. The system — an eight-foot cube with images projected on walls in front, to the left and right of the user and on the floor — is now 11 years old.

Cave users wear LCD-shutter glasses that allow them to view data from a variety of angles. The Cave is equipped with tracking devices that move the projections to wherever the user is looking or touching.

The grant will allow the implementation of 70 new high-definition projectors, as well as wireless glasses and a bigger space to move around in, said John Huffman, graphics systems analyst for the CCV.

These renovations will give users “the ability to completely immerse yourself in … scientific data,” said David Laidlaw, professor of computer science.

“It’s sort of like going from the very first telephone … to the iPhone 4,” Laidlaw said.

Many different departments use the Cave, including a “Cave Writing” class, which uses the system as a way of interacting with poetry, Huffman said. The Department of Geological Sciences uses the Cave to recreate the surface of Mars and other planetary objects, giving students the opportunity to use skills and techniques they have acquired in class, he added.

“It’s a new way of seeing the planets that you can’t really do any other way,” said Caleb Fassett, postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geological Sciences. According to Fassett, most of his students enjoy the experience of using the Cave as a visual component of their education.

When the upgrades are complete, the system will have better color representation, higher contrast and “the same resolution as your eyes are capable of,” Huffman said.

Laidlaw said the CCV hopes to have the new Cave ready next October, when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers will host a week-long forum in Providence.

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