Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
June 14, 1996

Meeting the future . . .in a CAVE

by Skip Derra
Strap on a set of 3-D glasses, slip on a highly wired Isotoner glove,lower the lights and get to work.

This is the job of Carolina Cruz-Neira, an associate scientist at the Iowa Center for Emerging Manufacturing Technology (ICEMT) and assistant professor of computer science. Cruz-Neira is combining science with art to build the CAVE++, a virtual reality (VR) "environment" that uses high-speed computer graphics to blur the distinction between what is real and what is not.

In CAVE++, you can climb the stairs of a building that doesn't exist. You can walk across Iowa State's campus in the year 2005. You can be chased by gold-colored, Pac-mannish whirling robots. The environment exists, but only in the neural connections between your eyes and your mind. You can reach out and try to touch one of the robots at your feet, but they are nothing more than rear-projected stereo images from a computer. The effect, however, is life-like.

"Whenever I think of the perfect CAVE, I always come back to reality," Cruz-Neira said of the goal to make virtual reality real. The perfect CAVE, which she said is years away, would rely less on high-tech gear like the glasses and glove, and could be a room that becomes the images it projects. But this "Alice in Wonderland" environment today is not so seamless and its images are cartoonish. It's Cruz-Neira's job to build a real-feeling environment out of the limitations of today's computer technology.

The 12 x 12-foot CAVE++ will allow Cruz-Neira to put in it pieces of real equipment, like robots or a mockup of a truck cab. With the real instruments, people in the CAVE++ will manipulate the fake environment they are experiencing.

"When we have everything in and calibrated," Cruz-Neira promises, "it will be very hard to tell where reality ends and virtual reality begins."

CAVE++ is a fourth generation CAVE, four years removed from the original Cruz-Neira built while at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Cruz-Neira, a professional ballet dancer only 10 year ago, now is a leading "VR techie." She is one of the first people in the world to earn a Ph.D. with a virtual reality emphasis. A highly sought researcher, Cruz-Neira came to Iowa State because the people at ICEMT are excellent researchers and team players, she said, and because of opportunities to move the CAVE from a curiosity to a tool for applied research.

She said potential uses for the CAVE are limited only by the imagination and computer power. Researchers currently use the CAVE to study ergonomics, architecture, molecular structures and space. The CAVE++ may be a work in progress, but it has generated much interest on campus and off with faculty members and company representatives coming to see first-hand the work of Cruz-Neira.

While her work is steeped in science, Cruz-Neira enjoys its artistic side. She has done several "art installations," bringing virtual reality to the finger tips of artists for them to explore as a medium. It's in the combination of art and science that Cruz-Neira hopes to push VR technology to the point of nondistinction with reality.

"Reality has two sides to it," Cruz-Neira said. "You can make something that looks photo-realistic, but it might not react to you in a real way. Or you might have something that is not so real looking, but it reacts real to you.

"You forget how it looks while you grab it and push it. You can be in the CAVE and have the robots chase you around," she said. "You can make them an enemy or a friend of yours. In that interaction, they lose their cartoonish appearance and become real to you."

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