Duke (University’s) Immersive Virtual Environment

[From North Carolina’s News & Observer]

Virtual looks and feels almost real


DURHAM — As Mushtaqur Rahman floated to the rafters of Duke Chapel, it was easy to forget that he was neither in a church nor off the ground.

“Feeling rather angelic right now?” asked Rahman’s colleague, William Rice II, as both men peered through oversize 3-D goggles at the virtual chapel being projected above, below and all around them.

Rahman and Rice are engineers with Parsons Brinkerhoff, one of the world’s largest civil engineering firms. They had come to Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering on a recent morning to experience a cube-shaped virtual reality theater called the Dive, or Duke immersive virtual environment.

Their guide was David Fuller, whose Raleigh company, FullCon Solutions, has been trying – thus far unsuccessfully – to market the Duke facility to architects and construction firms.

Fuller is not the first person to see commercial potential in the technology.

Some large corporations such as Boeing have built their own virtual reality theaters to help with engineering design. Others, including Caterpillar and John Deere, have relationships with campus facilities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Iowa State University, respectively.

Rachael Brady, a Duke senior research scientist and the founder and director of the Dive, said when Fuller approached her, she viewed it as a great way to widen the Dive’s appeal.

“He’s educating the architecture field on technology they should already be using,” she said.

Duke’s virtual reality theater, a cube with 9-foot sides, was built with funding from the National Science Foundation and went live in November 2005. The theater, which cost several million dollars, is in a cavelike space on the first floor of the Fitzgerald building, just a few feet from Duke Chapel.

The Dive uses the same projectors and projection screens that movie theaters use to show 3-D films such as the current hit “Avatar.” What separates it from most computer-aided design programs is that both the floor and the ceiling are projection screens.

“Until you go to six sides, your world falls off the edge of your screen,” Brady said.

For Star Trek fans, the Dive will inevitably bring to mind the “holodeck,” the room on the Starship Enterprise where characters view lifelike virtual situations. The ability to program virtual worlds to appear in the Dive has made it particularly popular with Duke researchers studying brain function and human behavior.

One group of researchers, for example, exposed subjects in the Dive to virtual worlds inhabited by snakes and spiders in an effort to better understand how people experience and overcome fear. A current study measures how well people can handle daily stress using a virtual kitchen where everyday stressful events such as a baby crying or loud music from a neighbor are introduced.

The simulation Fuller prepared for Parsons Brinkerhoff included a walking tour of Duke Chapel, as well as models for a proposed Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and a 50-story tower in Charlotte.

Genuine queasiness

Climbing a 50-story tower in the Dive is real enough to cause a queasy stomach. The technology allows a user to experience an architectural model from any viewpoint; thus Rahman could see how the puppetry center in Atlanta would look to drivers passing by on Interstate 75.

Rahman said facilities like the Dive could be helpful on controversial projects in which a number of different stakeholders are concerned about a design.

“The more contentious the project, the more you get into the fancy modeling techniques,” he said.

Fuller’s pitch to potential clients such as Parsons Brinkerhoff is that, for a fee, his company will take 3-D architecture models and convert them to be displayed in the Dive, a time-consuming process that he says can take days, depending on the size of the data file.

Among the challenges Fuller faces is that he is trying to market the use of a technology that he doesn’t own or have exclusive rights to. Although Brady is supportive of Fuller’s efforts, Fuller does not have an exclusive arrangement with the university.

Any person can ask to rent time in the Dive. Duke charges $225 an hour for nonprofits and a higher rate for corporations such as FullCon.

Brady said FullCon is the only company using the Dive at the moment. Food maker Pepperidge Farm previously used the Dive to study package design and product placement on shelves using a virtual grocery store.

The university requires that any major user of the Dive provide some educational benefit to students. In addition to his FullCon work, Fuller supports Duke engineering and architecture students by guest lecturing and including them in Dive visits.

Fuller’s other major challenge at the moment is the credit crunch. Construction activity has ground to a halt since the credit markets froze, and most firms are trying to conserve cash to make it through the downturn.

They may need the real world to improve before they consider venturing into the virtual world.

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