Virtual reality room brings the brain, Mars and research into CAVE2

The Cave2 hybrid reality environment at University of Illinois, Chicago's Electronic Visualization Lab.
The Cave2 hybrid reality environment at University of Illinois, Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Lab.

By Michael Epstein

The  “CAVE2” hybrid reality environment takes virtual reality from head-mounted devices to virtual reality rooms. The environment is the creation of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A massive supercomputer-powered “theatre” comes to life through the choreography of more than 35 3-D-capable high-definition displays, motion trackers and cameras.

“Our goal has always been: ‘How do we have people do what people normally do?’ and then have the physical room be different, rather than putting stuff on the person to put them into this other world,” said EVL Research Director Andrew Johnson.

The EVL develops hardware and software to enable universities and businesses to assess real-world problems by allowing groups of workers to see and manipulate information in a single digitally enhanced space. The CAVE2’s size and immersion comes at a slight cost, though. While a head-mounted display allows for 360 degrees of virtual realization and personalized perspective, the CAVE2 only allows for a 320-degree view — there’s an entrance in the back — and does not have any screens on the floor and ceiling.

Of course, once you create a unique hardware platform, you have to build software to use on it. To demonstrate the appeal of the CAVE2’s distinct approach to VR, the EVL has committed to working with partners and developing software that takes advantage. The EVL adapts data and visualization projects from all kinds of universities and government agencies.

Analysts at UIC’s psychiatry department supplied data for a 3-D model that depicts the directional flow of impulses moving across a human brain. Similarly, a model of Mars using data provided by NASA created by an EVL graduate student adapted for the CAVE2 in 2012 allows users to view the topography of the planet the same way a low-flying bird might on Earth.

Two years after launch, custom display installer Mechdyne, the lab’s corporate partner that sells and installs CAVE and CAVE2, has just begun to successfully market it to corporations and other universities.

An expensive — $1.6-$2M depending on the number and quality of the monitors — only two additional CAVE2s have been built since the innovation launched in 2012, one to commercial buyer, another to a university. Creation of a third unit is underway with other proposals in the works. According to Mechdyne consultant and EVL alum Matt Szymanski, the ideal CAVE2 customer is not looking for a pure virtual reality experience, but 3-D capable space for various applications.

“The CAVE2’s footprint allows really allows you to put 12, 15 people in there quite comfortably with chairs and desks, and actually hold meetings,” Szymanski said. “They also want to be able to have immersive 3-D fly-throughs, design reviews, virtual prototyping and have that immersive experience as well.”

No matter how powerful the experience, the CAVE2 does not “replace” reality with a virtual world. For Johnson, who has been developing virtual reality products for 20 years, the concept of what constitutes a “virtual reality” device extends beyond clunky headgear and images that trick users into reaching out to the ether.

“The virtual world is never going to be the only world you want to be in,” Johnson said. “Even with [playing] video games, you’re still occasionally going to want to go grab something to drink or grab some chips. The harder it is to move between those two worlds… You have a harder burden to go back in.”

Since launching in 2012, the EVL team has continued iterating on their own version of the CAVE2, integrating video game hardware, such as the Kinect motion sensor from the Xbox One game console and Sony’s PlayStation Move, a wand-style motion controller, to add gesture-based control options.

Johnson believes there are many ways to approach virtual reality: It’s a spectrum that’s greatly expanding with augmented reality devices, including wearable tech like Google Glass and gaming hardware, some of which has been integrated into the CAVE2. Regardless of the form, however, VR technology is still need of a breakthrough, a practical application that will draw people to it and keep them interested.

“The big hit [against] VR has always been that it’s great for demos,” Johnson said, “but aside from manufacturing, architecture, oil exploration and military training it’s never found a home.”