Portland, Ore. -- One of the world's highest-resolution virtual reality installations, Iowa State University's visionary VR room, will sport 100 million pixels after a $4 million upgrade.
Inside the room, a 96-processor Hewlett-Packard computer cluster feeds images to 24 Sony digital projectors to back-illuminate all six surfaces of the 10 x 10 x 10-foot room--the four walls, floor and ceiling--with alternating right- and left-eye stereoscopic images. LCD shutter glasses alter- nating from left to right in synchronization with all projectors enable the immersive 3-D virtual reality experience. An ultrasonic motion-tracking system changes the scene as users turn their head.
"We are creating active stereo VR using four projectors per surface, for the left and right eyes in both the upper and lower halves of each 10 x 10-foot surface," said James Oliver, director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center.
The C6 room previously held the title of the highest-resolution VR installation worldwide when it was announced in 2000. But since then, other VR rooms have been built with higher resolution, such as the five-sided room (sans floor) recently installed by Fakespace Systems Inc. (Marshalltown, Iowa) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory's Strategic Computing Com- plex. Fakespace also contracted with Iowa State to upgrade the university's C6 installation to regain the highest-resolution crown--100 million pixels compared with the 43 million-pixel installation at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
C6 uses 16 times more pixels than the 2000 incarnation of the room.
Virtual reality capabilities help Iowa State grad student Jared Knutzon to control military UAVs.
"The most difficult thing to convey is how real it is--[in] all the photos you see, we've had to turn off the stereo and just show a single image, and pictures can't do justice," said Oliver. "In pictures you can see the corners--it just looks like you are standing in a room that's a cube and the walls are screens, but when you put put on the glasses, those walls just disappear. The walls and corners just evaporate from your consciousness and you are inside a 3-D world--it's very compelling."
The walls disappear because the images on each wall compensate for the linear shape of the walls. A head-mounted tracker constantly informs the processors to change the angles slightly in response to the angle at which a viewer's head is tilted, and each processor calculates just one of the angles.
Funding for the C6 upgrade was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. For their military sponsors, Iowa State researchers will also be developing realistic fly-throughs of battlefield airspaces aimed at improving remote control of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The system will allow a birds-eye view of terrain and other aircraft as they are fed live data from instruments, cameras, radar and the weapons' target-and-fire control systems. Today all images are computer-generated, but Oliver wants to expand that using live video from satellites and UAVs themselves.
"We want to get live-terrain data, and texturize it with maps and geopolitical data, and use [the data] as the background for our computer-generated images," said Oliver.
The researchers at Iowa State think that dividing the tasks among a crew of operators is a smarter way to fly missions with multiple aircraft than having a single operator fly a single or even a flock of UAVs.
"We want to provide a group-oriented approach with three or more operators, all with a totally immersive shared context, but none of whom are piloting the flock," said Oliver. "Instead, each will have a role-based interface that is specific to our different functions," he said. "One might have an AR [augmented reality] rig that allows them to see the dashboards of individual aircraft showing their air speeds, weapons status and that kind of thing. A second operator might be the commander who . . . sees a god's-eye view that he chooses from and shares with all the other operators. And the third operator could have a head-mounted display so that he can zoom into specific regions of interest to take a closer look and report back to the commander."
Apart from military research, engineers, scientists and researchers from all over the world have already been bringing their data to Iowa State to visualize it in immersive 3-D. With the upgrade to higher resolution, Oliver expects that an even broader range of engineers and scientists will want to use the resources of C6.
"All the engineering sciences are building increasingly rich 3-D data sets where real-time visualization can help, including chip designers," said Oliver. "Chip designers are already having to design in 3-D instead of just on planes--there are many potential applications in chip design."
Currently, only a single wall has been upgraded, with the other five walls slated for completion later this year. The grand opening is scheduled for spring 2007.
The C6 room will be shared by Iowa State researchers working in mechanical engineering and architecture on such projects as creating 3-D walk-throughs of proposed new buildings, and building a virtual catalog of historical buildings. Iowa State EEs are also working with biology professors to create visualization databases for as many as 22,000 genes, enabling both researchers and students to simulate and observe photosynthesis and cell metabolism "from the inside."