A 3D World Illuminates

Back in a former life, I was a scientist — a biologist, technically — and somehow I managed to excel in the intricacies of genetic mapping, tracing the effects of divergent and convergent evolution and explaining why males and females have varying levels of investment based on the principle of anisogamy. Yet certain fields of science and technology have always eluded me, so when I visited the new virtual reality installation at Brown University, I was content to understand none of the mechanics and just play around like a kid at Disneyland.

They are calling it The Cave, but it bears more resemblance to the holodeck in “Star Trek.” Project Manager Tom Sgouros welcomed us Motifers (I visited with fellow Motif writer Mike) into a special-access-only building, where 20 computers, 69 video projectors, 145 mirrors and about a mile and a half of video cable would soon work together to make us feel like we were shooting asteroids and walking inside of the human brain. But that was yet to come.

Sgouros explained that this was not the first virtual reality installation at Brown. Their first installment — one computer running seven projectors, with no mirrors, inside of a small cube — fueled the desire to go bigger and better. It’s like going from a potato gun to a cannon, except this isn’t all about fueling the fantasies of science nerds; the primary intended purpose for this installation is research. Hence the brain.

The first thing Mike and I were instructed to do, after removing our shoes, was to put on the glasses. Mike received normal (“normal”) “Star Trek”-looking black glasses, and I was given something that would make my hometown of Roswell proud: glasses with multiple antennae coming off of them, a little like deer antlers, each with a round ball at the end. “This is going to be The Jenny Show,” Sgouros said, but he wasn’t referring to the governing principle of my everyday life because he added, “and you’re about to see why.”

Before us, hanging like a tapestry, was a replica of a 260-foot panoramic painting depicting the conquests of Garibaldi, which Brown happened to have its hands on but cannot display because it might, at any point, crumble. We were able to view the entire scene, however, scrolling the image from left to right, zooming in to see incredible detail without ever getting that “pixel-y” appearance. With explorers toeing cliffs to our right and a ship traversing the sea on our left, Sgouros told me to step forward until I felt like the painting was right in front of my open palm. So, I did.

Then he instructed me to walk through the painting.

I hesitated. “Really?” I asked, knowing that it was virtual, but still feeling like I might be taking a step off a cliff.

“Yes, go for it,” he encouraged, and once I walked through the invisible curtain, he told me to turn around.

It was as if I were seeing Mike and Tom from the inside of a waterfall. The painting was still in front of me, but I was seeing it in reverse, as though I really had walked through it and was behind it. “Are you ready to see why this show was your show?” Sgouros asked, and at that point Mike and I switched headgear, and we reenacted the experiment — only this time, the painting grew and transformed with every step Mike took forward, and when he walked through the painting, it felt like it was all around us.

“Those antennae are receiving information from motion capture cameras overhead, and as soon as three of them lock onto the same receptor, they know where it is and work to justify the image accordingly.” Only the person wearing the alien glasses sees the image in constant dimensional proportion as he or she moves. Above us I saw circles of blue light, seeking out the antennae. Because Mike is nearly twice my height, the cameras lose him when he gets too close to the edge of the virtual room, so vertically challenged people rejoice! Your show will be the best!

After the painting, we moved on to a virtual window nook: two window panes and a window seat, decorated with throw pillows that even had a fake monogram(!), with bookshelves on either side, which you could peer around, housing Japanese Architecture and bestsellers written in “Klingon script,” as Mike described it. (When the scene was created, viewers couldn’t yet zoom in close enough to read the book titles, so the original designers didn’t bother creating them in any real language.)

Then came the brain. It took up the entire space of the room: all of us stood inside of it. Mostly, we were surrounded by grey matter, with a network of white matter that was highlighted in royal blue. This sort of imaging is where investigators find the greatest value in a virtual reality tool like this. Instead of looking at data in thin, 2D slices, the computers are able to put all of that information into a 3D image that we can experience in a way we’re accustomed to interpreting. Brains, kidneys, all sorts of inner organs could be at our disposal, and it might enable us to answer questions like, “Did we really remove all of that tumor?”

Another example of data that could benefit from immersive 3D is contour mapping. It’s one thing to look at squiggly lines that get closer to each other and imagine a mountain peak, or one could simply behold a mountain peak. We could virtually explore Mars, for instance, by using data from the rovers. Anomalies that wouldn’t stand out in 2D might jump out at an observer in 3D – like whether a given formation looks like a former river bed … or something else…

We concluded our virtual tour with the “fun stuff”: 3D Paint and video games. Using the remote control like a paintbrush, you can draw lines with the diameter of a pipe, suspended in space (“Cave painting”). I wrote the word “Hi” and drew a fish. It was something I could have entertained myself with for hours. The video game was also fun, shooting asteroids before they shot us. Since I was wearing the alien glasses again, we only “died” if I was hit, so I could keep us alive by dodging asteroids, which I found a lot easier than shooting — and it was a great workout! Much better than a Wii workout, Mike and I determined.

It’s a whole new world at Brown, a virtual world ready to be utilized by inquiring minds. Anyone who can benefit from such technology is encouraged to get in touch, get the grand tour, and work with Sgouros to turn a seemingly far-fetched dream into a (virtual) reality.

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