First Annual Virtual Reality Jam a Success

February 1, 2005

Virtual reality experts from across the country descended on Duke Nov. 10-11 for the first Annual Virtual Reality Jam Session in the new Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) facility located in the Fitzpatrick Center. The event offered the VR gurus a chance to trade computer applications and experiences with the immersive technology.

During the two-day jam session, Rachael Brady, director of the Visualization Technology Group, encouraged students, faculty and staff to experience first hand the wonder of multiple virtual worlds – among them a giant molecule and a driving simulator. Representatives from many disciplines, including the Nicholas School for the Environment and Earth Sciences and cognitive neuroscience, were in attendance.

“This kind of system is ideal for research that just can’t be done on a desktop computer -- for situations in which you need spatial manipulation and to see or measure features that can’t be done in two-dimensions,” Brady said. For example, she said, CAVEs have been used by the oil industry to successfully visualize seismic data for the detection of oil deep underground.

“The event was quite successful,” Brady said. “We got several applications up and running. We all learned a lot.” Hosted by The Visualization Technology Group, the jam session was supported by the Pratt School of Engineering and the computer science department.

Duke's DiVE is the newest of seven fully enclosed, six-sided CAVEs in the world -- the third in the U.S. CAVE, an acronym for CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment trademarked by the University of Illinois, has become a general term for any large-field projection system with tracking in stereo, Brady said.

Brady gained her first experience with CAVEs at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before coming to Duke in 2001. Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, also has a fully-enclosed VR facility as do locations in Gifu, Japan; Stockholm, Sweden; Aalborg, Denmark and Stuttgart, Germany.

The theater-like enclosure surrounds users with computerized virtual reality images projected onto the walls, floor and ceiling. Specialized tracking sensors allow the computer to pinpoint an individual’s location within the CAVE, to adjust the perspective accordingly.

As all who attended the jam can attest, CAVEs have obvious entertainment value. However, the high cost of such facilities has so far limited their use to the realm of research in both academic and corporate settings, said David Bullock, managing director of the German company Hoffman 3D and the builder of the DiVE.

The cost of the Duke DiVE including installation was $900,000. The expense for a full-time engineer and administrator to keep it operational is expected to run about $200,000 per year, Brady said.

In one of a series of invited talks Nov. 11, Ron Kriz, director of the Virginia Tech CAVE, offered an overview of his experience working in virtual environments. He has applied the technology to the study of wave propagation in nanostructures.

“The CAVE is my telescope,” Kriz said. “With it I’ve been able to see things that couldn’t have been seen otherwise.

"Such data immersion leads to new knowledge.” he added. “However, it can be difficult to prove,” because these are details that anyone without a CAVE available to them cannot see.

Forum attendee Dan Keefe, a graduate student in computer science at Brown University, is also exploring the potential for CAVEs in the production of virtual sculpture through an application dubbed “CAVE paint,” he said. Keefe’s research marries his backgrounds in art and computer graphics.

“CAVEs make it possible to use sweeping gestures to create something in three-dimensions,” Keefe said. “The advantage at Duke is the sheer scale of the DiVE, which allows use of the whole space to make full-body movements,” he added. “The colors are also nice and punchy.”

Jim Crowell of the University of Illinois also discussed his use of a CAVE environment for experiments in cognitive psychology. Crowell’s research focuses primarily on the study of spatial memory and navigation.

“Our experiments are much like the classic rat in a maze,” Crowell said. “We put someone through a maze inside the CAVE, and they then have to figure out where they started from.”

Others in the neuroscience area at Duke are interested in pursuing similar types of research, as are groups in clinical psychology and physical therapy, among others, Brady said.

Some at Duke have already incorporated the DiVE into their research, Brady added. For example, civil and environmental engineering graduate student Gil Bohrer uses the virtual environment to image complex patterns of seed dispersal in the forest. Jeremy Block, a graduate student in biochemistry, also makes use of the facility to develop protein “chimeras” – 3-D models that simultaneously display multiple possible protein states. It was one of Block’s applications that allowed visitors to the DiVE to walk through and interact with a molecule, Brady said.

“I can’t believe it has happened so fast,” she said. “It’s really unusual.” The Illinois CAVE took two years to become operational, Brady said, and they still have frequent problems with the tracking system.

"We really benefited from the lessons learned during the Illinois construction," Brady said.

Brady also purchased two commercially available applications, Amira and Virtools, which have eased the process of bringing data into the DiVE.

The use of CAVEs nonetheless present great challenges to be tackled by computer scientists and engineers to enrich the virtual interaction with data, a common theme in the presented talks. Applications are also needed to further simplify the transition from desktop computers to the CAVE, making the virtual facilities even more accessible to scientists without VR expertise, Brady said.

Brady plans to hold a forum for members of the Duke Medical Center community in the spring and an official open house this time next year, when the DiVE is expected to be in full production mode, she said.