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Virtual Education

May 11, 2012 3:44 PM, By Cynthia Wisehart

Technology gives students a more real experience.

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The first thing I notice about the new Virtual Reality Design Lab at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design is that it's flooded with light. Or—from the viewpoint of an RF motion capture sensor—it’s flooded with noise.

The light/noise streams in from all four exposures through a 360-degree corona of high windows. Light pools on the floors and bounces across the expansive space, striking extrusions and truss work, white walls, furniture, and debris that has accumulated through meetings, soirees, and projects. At the heart of the college’s Rapson Hall, this courtyard is a gathering place, and thoroughfare—and the new virtual reality lab.

In addition to the virtual reality experience, students also have a simple way to project a large size image of their plan drawings onto the courtyard floor. In this picture, the Sony projector points toward a screen on the wall, but the Epson points straight down. It’s on the LAN so students can easily upload drawings to the projector to download them onto the floor.

It is unusual for a virtual reality or motion capture space to be this large. It is even more unusual for it to be this bright.

For this reason, says Associate Dean of Architecture Lee Anderson, one of the most established virtual reality/motion capture systems, from Vicon, was not practical for the space—the sensors were not suited to the highly reflective environment. Instead, Anderson took his self-taught passion for virtual reality to tradeshows and seminars and came away from one of IEEE's VR shows sold on the PhaseSpace Impulse system.

Associate Dean of Architecture Lee Anderson holds the Sensics headset that he modified to position the LED markers in a "tree".

IEEE’s annual—and long-standing—virtual reality conference was held this year in March in Orange County, Calif., right about the time Google’s augmented reality glasses were in the news. While some may now think Google invented augmented reality, IEEE’s Visualization and Graphics Committee has been doing this conference for at least 20 years that I’m aware of, and it could be longer. This year it co-located with IEEE’s Symposium on 3D User Interfaces. The conference includes technical papers and demos; there was discussion of maximizing virtual walking and applying virtual odors. Lest this sound too esoteric, applications included medical, research, education and entertainment, and the market applications seem more mainstream than ever before. Sponsors included Christie, Barco, and Canon, alongside the specialized motion capture systems vendors.

Certainly at Rapson Hall it seems that virtual reality will become a daily tool in the design students’ toolbox. Yet it was clear from talking to Anderson that this is still in many ways an improvisational science, one that involves an amount of winging it with extra-wide cellophane tape (to attach the LED-tree to the headsets, of course).

The Impulse system in use at Rapson Hall is from San Leandro, Calif.-based PhaseSpace. Founded in 1994, the company aims to offer an affordable alternative to the $150,000- $300,000 tracking systems. One of the ways PhaseSpace reduced total cost of ownership for their system was to make it easier to use in rooms with a lot of light. Although cost was definitely a factor for Anderson, it was the system’s ability to work effectively in direct sunlight that made all the difference. Technically and philosophically, Anderson wanted the technology to integrate into the heart of the student’s studies. The university already had a small, dark virtual reality lab tucked into an out-of-the-way place on campus; Anderson wants technology to be right there in the midst of the architecture school, part of the Socratic flow as students meet and mingle in Rapson Hall, reaching for ways to collaborate.

Another factor that favored the Impulse system was its patented active LED technology and realtime processing. In part this eliminates a standard workaround of motion capture—sensors overlap and an operator will have to override the computer to tell it which marker is which. While many motion capture systems are used in environments (like Hollywood) where postprocessing is expected, and even preferred, the ability to eliminate it and avoid what’s called marker-swapping was key to the application at Rapson Hall. Since all of the PhaseSpace markers transmit a unique ID, there is no marker swapping. Further, the system is portable, simple, and accurate enough to suit a realtime application like the one Anderson had in mind for his architecture students.

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