Inside Iowa State
September 10, 1999
Bernard's virtual vision
by Skip Derra
Jim Bernard has built a career on what is not real, but the results of his efforts in virtual reality and computer animations are very real. You can see them across Iowa and you hear about them across the world.
Bernard, director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) and a mechanical engineering professor, has helped make Iowa State a leader in virtual reality (VR) technology and research. He brought in the people who brought us C2, an advanced virtual reality room. Bernard and other VRAC researchers are now working on C2's successor, C6.
Bernard also co-founded Engineering Animation Inc. (EAI), a fast-growing 3D computer visualization company in Ames that employs more than 1,000 people and had second quarter 1999 revenues of more than $27 million. More recently, three of Bernard's former students started up a Marshalltown company called MechDyne Corp., which builds C2-like virtual reality rooms.
In addition, Bernard has attracted a number of talented "techies" to the VRAC, as well as to Ames and central Iowa. That's a considerable achievement given that this area of the country is known more for crops and animals than for CAD/CAM and animations.
"I interviewed all over the country but decided on coming here because of Jim," said Marty Vanderploeg, a former student of Bernard and co-founder of EAI.
"A lot of talented people have come to Iowa because of Jim Bernard," added Vanderploeg, now the executive VP and chief technology officer at EAI. "He's responsible for a big group of talented people being at EAI, people who either worked for him directly or indirectly."
"Jim has vision," added Judy Vance, a VRAC researcher, associate professor of mechanical engineering and former Bernard student. "He looks at the big picture to see where everything fits together and then makes plans to get there."
"I just provide the white-haired part of the administration," Bernard said of his role as director of VRAC. "You have to have somebody with white hair; otherwise nobody will take you seriously."
In the late 1970s, Bernard was working at Michigan State University, trying to find ways to get more information out of computer simulations. Oftentimes, the end result of those simulations was a stream of data that had some very useful information buried somewhere in it.
With the help of three of his students -- Vanderploeg, Matt Rizai and Jim Oliver -- and armed with the technology of the time, a small Tektronix "green screen" computer monitor and a Super 8 film projector, they tried to bring life to those numbers. They came up with a method for making crude computer animations by meticulously drawing and redrawing images, storing them and replaying the sequence.
The result was "stick figures of cars or other machines moving around," Bernard recalled.
Fueled by an enormous growth in computer power, these computer animations grew in complexity. Bernard left Michigan State in 1983 for the mechanical engineering department chair at Iowa State. Vanderploeg and Oliver (now the director of development at EAI) also left MSU. Rizai, now the president and CEO of EAI, went on to get his MBA from the University of Chicago. They all eventually met again in Ames.
Vanderploeg set up the visualization lab at ISU and continued his work on computer graphics with the help of his students Jay Shannan and Jeff Trom.
"Around Trom and Shannan, we started a little consulting firm that would do animations," Bernard said. "We had to start the company in 1989 because Trom (now EAI's VP of development) and Shannan (EAI's VP of operations) were graduating and they were getting offers." Rizzai joined EAI in 1990.
To this day, Bernard downplays his role in EAI's success, pointing to the hard work of everyone else.
"There's a certain pride in nurturing, but I have to tell you, I didn't raise the baby," Bernard said.
Bernard severed his executive ties to EAI in the mid 1990s.
"As the company grew, there wasn't any way I could do both," Bernard said. "My best full-time fit is with the university."
Besides, he was focusing his energy on his fledgling center, the Iowa Center for Emerging Manufacturing Technology, the precursor to VRAC. In the mid 1990s, Bernard and his colleagues enticed Carolina Cruz-Neira to join the manufacturing technology center. Cruz-Neira, a pioneer in virtual reality research and designer and builder of the world's first virtual reality room called the CAVE, was soon hard at work building C2, a more sophisticated, room-sized facility.
Now 3 years old, C2 has drawn interest from a wide range of people, including leading VR researchers from around the world. It also was the focus of a 1997 visit by the head of NASA, Dan Goldin. In C2, researchers can work on automobile and tractor designs, space shuttle docking maneuvers and visit ancient buildings, long since lost to war or time.
On the drawing board today is C6, in which images will be projected on all four walls and the floor and ceiling of the room (C2 has images projected on three walls and the floor). Wireless controls will help free the researcher and make the fake environment even more real.
The $6 million C6 will be housed in Howe Hall's atrium and will be well over two stories tall. C2 will remain in operation. Bernard said having two VR rooms will help VRAC researchers and students explore virtual collaborations, in which researchers in different virtual reality rooms in different places can work together on one project.
Bernard simply says C6 will be "awesome." But, he warned, fame is fleeting.
"Nothing lasts for long in the computer business," he said. "But for its day in the sun, the C2-C6 combination is going to be among the finest VR environments in the world. People will come from all over the world to be part of it.
"We will use C6 and C2 to make great contributions to science and to virtual reality technology, as well as be poised to push the technology even further in the future," Bernard promised.
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