Cruz-Neira's panel is Applied Virtual Reality.























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Tearing Down the Walls


Several Virtual Reality (VR) projects are making interaction more natural. Based primarily on CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment) research, new projects are putting a fresh face on immersive interaction. Carolina Cruz-Neira developed the room-sized CAVE at the University of Illinois in Chicago as her Ph.D. project." I was looking for something that would not isolate [the user] from what was going on in the real world," she says, referring to bulky VR helmets. CAVE was first demonstrated at SIGGRAPH 92. Since then, other groups have developed similar systems - some are larger and others are smaller and more portable.

Now at Iowa State University (ISU), her next step has been to figure out how and where to put these VR systems to work. Virtual Reality can be a powerful tool, Cruz-Neira says, because it "can give you applications on a one-to-one scale, so you can see real proportions." This can be helpful for training surgeons, for example, because "with a virtual body, you just press 'reset' and everything you cut out is back in place."

In collaborating with ISU's College of Architecture, Cruz-Neira is looking at the different elements of space in terms of how they see it and the tools they need to change it. Currently, professional architects are testing these new applications that let people walk through a room, so "You get a better sense of the relationships in your building-like if a window is too high or too low-things that are hard to see through traditional sketches," she says.

Architects can then immerse clients in their designs to discuss changes, which can make the process more effective and satisfying for everyone. "This is something you can show to people, even if they don't understand the technical details," Cruz-Neira notes. These systems can also help train beginning architect and engineering students, because "this can show those concepts that they struggle with the most." Visualizing what a one-meter-square window will look like in a 10-by-10 meter room, for example, is much easier if students are immersed in a 3D model rather than studying a flat sketch. "Students will evolve with using these tools, then take that with them" when they go to professional firms.

Such new systems are also being created for engineering industries, to mimic function as well as design. If a virtual car, for example, runs too fast around a curve, then it will roll as a real car would. Making a prototype for a product often takes about two years and several million dollars, Cruz-Neira says. "Then if there are design flaws, you build a new prototype. But with this new [VR] system, you can do prototype changes in a couple days or less."

As the research becomes reality, Cruz-Neira has also noticed how the process breaks down a lot of other barriers encouraging communication between different professionals. A team of engineers, designers, manufacturers, and marketers, for example, can "do a quick virtual sketch of a concept, and everyone can start to see what they need to do," she says. Furthermore, they "can have multiple representations of the same data and can switch back and forth."

In the future, these new designs "will definitely change our lifestyles," Cruz-Neira predicts. Instead of "spending two or three days traveling for a three-hour business meeting," people will have "remote VR set-ups so they can meet in the same virtual space and do whatever they need to do," she says. Although technology is moving relatively quickly to make these visions reality on the public market- possibly in five years' time - there will have to be major cultural changes first. This will happen naturally, she says, as today's students become competitive professionals over the next decade.


Modeling | Rendering | Animation | Interaction | Virtual Reality | Synthetic Actors