Duke's New Reality
With Duke now featuring four locations for virtual reality, the Duke community can enter worlds never before imaginable
From the 2018 DukEngineer Magazine
What is real? Is it what we see? With virtual reality, that answer is a completely new one, especially at Duke. Home now to four locations, the DiVE, Bolt VR, TEC VR and the Multimedia Project Studio, the Duke community can enter worlds never before imaginable. Follow below as we explore what each of these virtual reality experiences has to offer.
Since 2005, the Duke immersive Virtual Environment, also known as the DiVE, has been a large-scale virtual reality (VR) facility. Users explore VR in a box-like display where they walk into a completely enclosed cube with screens projected onto each of the six faces. With users wearing special glasses, the system projects a different image for each eye to trick the mind into seeing an illusion of depth.
This principle is called stereoscopic vision. The projected display shows each eye a specific image of the environment from the individual eye's perspective, causing the brain to merge both images into a single picture that contains depth information. This is similar to the experience of a 3-D movie.
As opposed to 3-D movies, however, the DiVE allows users to interact with the virtual environment through the use of motion tracking sensors. A sensor is placed on the user's glasses to track the head position and another one is placed in the hand controller. The system then renders motion from the user's point of view as they travel the virtual environment, and the hand controller allows the user to perform actions such as picking up objects or flying through the environment.
Those user interactions require advanced technology to run smoothly. The DiVE system has recently upgraded its six render nodes—intricate computers that each now have an i7 processor, 64 GB of RAM and one Nvidia Quadro K6000 graphics cards that enable the display of highly complex graphics— and a master node that manages the other six. This level of computational power allows for graphics to be displayed in real time, providing highly realistic immersive experiences.
Regis Kopper, assistant research professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and director of the DiVE, says virtual reality is extremely versatile. There have been humanities classes that have taken tours through ancient buildings, simulations of archeological dig sites, an Olympic trap-shooting simulator that teaches marksmanship while the brain is analyzed by an EEG system, and other environments that deal with complex interaction techniques designed and evaluated in the DiVE. And that barely scratches the surface of the fun the DiVE has had in its more than a decade of existence.
There is also much research being conducted in the DiVE to develop training programs for professions that allow for consistent yet risk-free scenarios, one of the main advantages of virtual reality. Applications in public services, education, therapy, design, manufacturing and health care are boundless in VR, and the DiVE serves as a resource for the Duke community to wander deliberately in worlds already created and yet to be made.
There are many courses that Duke students can take that make use of the DiVE. At the undergraduate level, David Zielinski teaches ISS 320: Introduction to User Interface Design in Unity 3-D in the fall, which helps students with little technical and programming background to develop skills necessary to build virtual reality applications. At the graduate level, Kopper teaches ME 555.07: Virtual Reality Systems Research and Design in the spring, which gives an overview of the stateof- the-art research in virtual reality and involves a semester-long research project. Much can be done, no matter your experience, to experience the best of virtual reality.
Bolt & TEC VR
Adding to the accessibility, the Bolt VR and the newly built TEC VR spaces offer a theater where students and faculty can dabble in virtual reality. More than sixty VR titles are in each space that bring new worlds and new experiences where you are directly in the thick of it.
The immersion is done with an HTC Vive Headset and associated controllers. To keep track of your movements in the 10'x10' space, sensors shoot out a volumetric stream of infrared lasers to keep track of the positional orientation and acceleration of the headset and the controllers. For the visual immersion, the level of data streaming to and from the computer is massive due to the two lenses in the headset. Each lens has a resolution of 1080x1200, meaning each eye takes about 90-95 percent of the horsepower that gaming on a normal monitor takes, which makes VR impossible to run on subpar tech.
According to Mark Everett Papa McGill, the manager of these spaces, "In order to have a high-quality visual experience, the system needs to run at 90 frames per second at all times. Any drop below that results in an unpleasant, non-immersive experience. If you've tried VR and didn't like it, you probably had a bad setup." McGill continues by talking about how the Bolt and TEC VR spaces are built to take on the toughest, longest gaming sessions to "give you virtual reality at a consumer level but at its best."
The difference between the Bolt VR and the TEC VR spaces is that the TEC VR space has an educational component rather than just an entertainment focus, as the Bolt VR does. TEC VR is also equipped with additional capabilities, specifically a green screen to help in hosting VR events.
In the near future, there will be a faculty reservation process along with trained staff to allow instructors to craft ways to help students learn conceptually difficult topics via a virtual environment. Two games worth mentioning are Organon, which takes users on a detailed, virtual tour through the human anatomy, and Titans of Space 2.0, which provides a gorgeous trip through our cosmos fit for any stargazer. This showcases how applicable this tool can be for any area of knowledge.
Multimedia Project Studio
The Multimedia Project Studio (MPS) located in Perkins Library next to the Link is one last place to find virtual reality. Designed for the Duke community to craft, edit and finalize any form of media, this space recently added an Oculus Rift for constructing virtual reality, adding another avenue for students and faculty to create and innovate.
The core software running the space are AutoDesk, Blackmagic Fusion, DAZ 3D, Maya, Unity and Unreal Engine. And with that level of software comes a steep learning curve. The space has trained instructors, however, to help get you started. Chip Bobbert, director of the MPS, says, "It is a grand experiment for us," and looks forward to seeing what the Duke community does with this powerful and sophisticated technology.
To help with that learning curve, Devils Cross Reality (DXR) is a new student organization that uses all forms of virtual reality at Duke and strives to teach and expose students to what VR can do, no matter their background or skill level. The club was founded by Mark Steelman, a junior DiVE researcher who has made it his mission to create a VR community that brings students and faculty together to learn and explore the ways VR can benefit Duke.
"It's hard to talk and understand VR unless you've tried it," remarked Steelman. "Virtual reality is still very much in the R&D stage and there isn't much education for it. This group was made for teaching each other together and enjoying the vastness of VR."
The club plans on hosting larger public events that provide opportunities not offered at the existing outlets for VR, such as presentations from industry professionals, demos of applications under development and career-building opportunities.
So What Is Reality?
At Duke, it is not a matter of what is seen; it is what you can do that is real, and with virtual reality being an accessible, limitless and mind-blowing tool, there is only time in our way before we create worlds to help this one. With this combination of the DiVE, Bolt VR, TEC VR and the Multimedia Project Studio, there is nothing virtual about the reality Duke can make.
Samuel Lester is a sophomore pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering.