Shooting, biking and space mining at UGA virtual reality showcase

[From OnlineAthens, where the story includes additional images]

VR bike at UGA open house

[Image: B.J. Whimpey, left, rides a virtual reality bicycle while Ray Smith, one of the two designers, looks on at the Driftmier Engineering Center in Athens, Ga., Thursday, May 2, 2013. (AJ Reynolds/Staff) AJ Reynolds/OnlineAthens & The Athens Banner-Herald]

Shooting, biking and space mining at UGA virtual reality showcase

By Lee Shearer – Friday, May 3, 2013

The places were virtual, but the fun was real Thursday in a virtual-reality open house on the University of Georgia campus. Visitors could operate a robotic flyer, fire a Glock 9mm pistol complete with recoil, or ride a bicycle through some scenic countryside.

Also, students Nicholas Sobrilsky, Mark Boltri and Joao Campos provided tours of the great lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, even though the lighthouse has been gone for centuries. One of the so-called seven wonders of the ancient world, the 40-story-or-so structure guided ships for some 1,600 years before a series of earthquakes left it a ruin in the 14th century.

“We thought it would be really exciting to visit places you might not be able to otherwise,” explained Boltri.

The virtual bicycle tour — the bicycle was real — that Ashley Chambliss and Ray Smith built might one day liven up a stationary exercise bike in someone’s living room, or provide a way to tour the French countryside without leaving home, just by donning a pair of goggles that transport the wearer onto a bicycle path, or any other environment installed in a computer. They plan to refine their system, adding variable drag to the bicycle’s rear wheels. That way, the rider will not only have the visual sensation of going uphill or downhill, but the physical sensation of freewheeling downhill or a tough uphill slog.

Two more computer science students traveled virtually into outer space. Graduate student Kalesha Bullard of Decatur and Giovann Wah, an undergraduate from McDonough, devised a virtual flying robot. Users zip across the surface of Venus looking for a particular mineral. When they find it, they scrape off a sample, then bring it back to a home base for analysis.

Seniors Cameron Townley of Covington and Jonathan Jaurigue of Peachtree City built a firing range, but no ordinary one. When the person who sat down to shoot the virtual pistol, more or less a 9 mm Glock handgun, he or she got not only visual but tactile feedback; the handgun had a recoil.

The recoil was the toughest part of the project, said the two seniors in computer science.

“You have to fine-tune every calculation,” Jaurique said.

The recoil is a kind of “haptic feedback,” said Kyle Johnsen, a professor in UGA’s College of Engineering. Most of the students in the class were enrolled in a virtual reality class Johnsen taught this semester, where the idea is to learn by doing. Haptic feedback is using the sense of touch in a user interface.

At least from a research point of view, the most exciting of the projects on display may have been the virtual maze that graduate student Arybrata Basu built using a smartphone and off-the shelf software. Scientists usually conduct virtual reality research in labs, where people may not feel comfortable, Johnsen said. “No one’s ever studied virtual reality in the wild,” he said. But Basu’s portable, inexpensive system could change that, Johnsen said.

The projects didn’t all work perfectly Thursday, but the students had gotten the main lesson in Johnsen’s virtual reality class.

“I hope they come out with the knowledge that they can build anything that they want,” he said.


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