Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Nov. 15, 1996

On the virtual edge of reality

by Anne Dolan
We had approached the edge of the roof and our guide announced we would be "jumping." Light-stomached about roller coaster rides and observation decks in sky-scrapers, I panicked -- apparently aloud. One of our group gave me a playful shove from behind. Thankfully, our descent was closer to floating than free falling and in a safe number of seconds we had our feet back on the ground, virtually.

Thus ended my recent 7-minute introduction to virtual reality in C2, Iowa State's pace-setting lab. C2 visually simulates environments -- a room, neighborhood, the inside of a piston pump, interacting molecules -- using computers, mirrors and light. At 12 x 12 feet, C2 currently is the largest and fastest virtual reality room in the world. Set up in lab space in Black Engineering, it is operated by the Iowa Center for Emerging Manufacturing Technology (ICEMT). About eight other virtual laboratories exist; a few are at research universities, but most are owned by big-name operations like NASA, Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and Sun Microsystems.

C2 is a three-sided room with white projection screens for walls and a white floor, on which computer images appear in real time -- or as fast as the computer can generate the information. This allows you to "move" around and above objects. If you attempt to walk "underneath" anything, there is no image when you look up. Up is where some of C2's mirrors and projection equipment are suspended.

Virtual maze
Of the dozen-plus computer applications developed so far for use in C2, our group experienced "The Maze," a journey through, above and past a large, airy palace. The program was developed to demonstrate effects such as lighting changes, shadows and reflection based on the design of a building. For our group of curious tourists, it was simply a joy ride.

The seven of us donned special stereo glasses that produce a three-dimensional effect. Computer images are generated in stereo, meaning there are left and right versions. The glasses are synchronized with the images so that one of the lenses in the glasses is always covered, eliminating "double vision."

The Maze is essentially a visual experience. (Other programs involve sensory gloves or props that give people hands-on experiences.) Graduate assistant Jeremy Eccles was our tour guide, moving us through our building by controlling the application on a hand-held control wand.

Starting outside, at ground level, we moved toward the building. Once inside, we traveled through big rooms with large support columns. We took turns wearing a special pair of glasses, wired directly to the computer program, that changed the angle of our view. For example, if the wearer of the special specs moved a few steps to the left, the columns were to our right as we passed through a room.

Eccles made a few adjustments on the wand and we ascended to near the ceiling. As I hovered about 20 feet above the floor, I was reminded of my first "theater" movie, Mary Poppins, and the tea party on the ceiling with Uncle Albert.

Eccles made a few more adjustments and we were outside, passing over tree tops and heading for a body of water. He swung us around and we gazed back at the building we had just left.

More than just cool
As engaging as C2 is, ICEMT and its funding partners didn't invest $1 million in it for entertainment value. The facility is designed for applications. Projects already are under way or completed for Iowa companies such as Sauer Sundstrand and John Deere. Simulating a product or a process in C2 allows researchers to understand it better and work out more of the kinks before they invest in a prototype.

Try it
C2 will be open for public tours on the third Friday of every month, beginning in January. Reserve a spot for yourself by calling 4-3092. You also can explore C2 at its own WWW homepage:

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