Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Tech masters world of virtual reality in CAVE

By Sandy Broughton

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 19 - February 5, 1998

Virginia Tech's Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center (ACITC) is not scheduled for completion until the year 2000, but already--before the groundbreaking has even taken place--you can tour one of the center's most anticipated features: the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, better known as the CAVE.
Interior Design faculty members and students, using three-dimensional-imaging computer programs, have created a virtual tour through the planned CAVE facility. You can enter the reception area, sit at a workstation, or go into the conference room, all via computer.
According to Joan McLain-Kark, interior-design faculty member, this new capability revolutionizes interior design. "You can fine-tune the design of space, right down to the placement of furniture, the art on the walls, and the texture of the floors, even before the space is made," McLain-Kark said. "You can do a walk-through of a proposed design with your client in the CAVE, test ideas in the full-scale, 3-D model, and make changes very quickly."
As part of the $1.6-million CAVE project, the College of Human Resources and Education is helping to bring to Virginia Tech the most advanced interdisciplinary research and educational technology. The CAVE will allow students and researchers to immerse themselves in three-dimensional space and synchronized sound, and manipulate images with a wand attached to a high-powered computer. The CAVE will be especially useful to CHRE students in interior design, allowing them to preview designs so that costly mistakes can be avoided.
But what, exactly, is the CAVE?
The CAVE was created by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois. It has three walls, a floor, and a nine-foot high ceiling. The walls and floor are screens that receive three-dimensional images from four video projectors. The images, produced by high-powered computers, are projected in stereo, so that users wearing stereo glasses find themselves immersed in 3-D space. The CAVE user can manipulate projected images with a wand, which is connected to the computer, similar to a personal computer's mouse. With the wand, the user can put images in motion and isolate segments of images for analysis or repositioning. The CAVE can hold up to 10 viewers, each of whom will experience all of the visual and auditory sensations that simulate "being there." The CAVE is set up in Virginia Tech's Corporate Research Center, adjacent to campus.
The Interior Design Futures Laboratory (IDFL), located on the fourth floor of Wallace Hall, was established as a satellite lab for the CAVE, so that interior-design faculty members and students could research innovative interior design concepts, plan them, then bring them into the CAVE to experience them in virtual reality.
McLain-Kark has been teaching computer-assisted design (CAD) since 1984 and three-dimensional modeling for 10 years, pursuits which naturally led to her research in virtual reality and CAVE technology. Through conferences, trade shows, and visits to other universities with virtual-reality labs, she realized the visualization component needed a very high resolution for interior-design applications. That's when she heard that a Virginia Tech faculty colleague in Engineering, Ron Kriz, was spearheading an effort to bring CAVE technology to the university. Several Tech colleges and the university's research division supported the proposal, as did the National Science Foundation. Virginia Tech is a CAVE partner with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL), and the Argonne National Laboratory via high-speed networks.
It is anticipated that the CAVE will be used by a variety of businesses in the mid-Atlantic region. McLain-Kark, for example, recently received a grant from Virginia Power Technologies to do computer modeling and a CAVE walk-through of the VPT building.
At Virginia Tech, the CAVE will be used by faculty members and students from all university disciplines. Mathematics professors can bring their students inside geometric shapes. Engineering classes can put together and take apart complex structures. Veterinary surgeons can prepare for operations by viewing large-scale simulations of animal organs. Architecture students can design 3-D structures and rearrange them with a wave of a wand.
"So many people will be able to use it," said McLain-Kark, who is a member of the university's CAVE steering committee. "From interior design walk-through's to scientific visualization, the CAVE will bring together disciplines from throughout the campus, and give us a new perspective on our colleagues' work."