Curiouser and Curiouser

By Zachary Block '99 / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
Will virtual reality ever grow up? Computer scientists have been singing the praises of this technology for years, but as was long the case with the field of biotechnology, virtual reality has been more useful as concept than as fact. Dolly the Scottish sheep brought new impetus to the biotech industry a few years back, but no such breakthrough has yet propelled virtual-reality machines out of their interesting-but-not-very-useful ghetto.

The latest sign that something is stirring, however, came in May, when Brown launched the Center for Scientific Computing and Visualization, which has as its centerpiece a "cave," or virtual- reality display. The hope is that this eight-foot-square room, which is housed in the applied math building on George Street, will allow researchers to literally get inside their data, giving them new perspectives on research models that until now have been flat images on small computer screens. A biologist, for example, could use the facility to step inside a cell and investigate the binding of various molecules to receptor sites. Geologists could study models of earthquakes or explore the surface of Mars, while other researchers could model air-flow patterns around hypersonic aircraft or observe the wing of a space shuttle in flight.

The cave achieves its impressive effects through a network of projectors situated behind its walls and suspended from its ceiling. The projectors, powered by four IBM computers anchored in a neighboring room, beam images to three walls and the floor. An operator dons computerized dark glasses and a pair of black electronic gloves - producing a sinister-looking fashion statement - and moves about the room. The glasses and gloves exchange information with the computers, which adjust the projected images to the wearer's movements.

Samuel Fulcomer, the center's director, says that part of the idea for the cave is to centralize and make more efficient the University's research computing. By bringing together so much computing power and support staff, the center, he says, aims to reverse "the fragmentation of a rapidly growing research community," a fragmentation resulting partly from the proliferation of personal computers. Fulcomer hopes the center will become a "computational watering hole" where researchers exchange ideas and think up new collaborations.

Although the cave's images are still primitive - the projections, though convincing when seen through the glasses, still have a sketchy quality - they are expected to improve soon, thanks to hardware and software upgrades. In fact, IBM, which donated about $7 million of equipment to the center, will benefit by learning how to improve its products in a market niche dominated by Silicon Graphics.

Computer science professor Andries van Dam, who is widely known as a computer-graphics pioneer, says the center's cave is the first in the Northeast, raising the University's computing and graphics-research profile in the region. Keeping that profile high won't come cheap, however. Fulcomer says the Center will cost about $1 million a year to staff and operate, money that will likely come as a combination of University cash and outside funding. The National Science Foundation has already donated about $1 million to get the cave up and running.

How important is virtual reality to researchers? Van Dam emphasizes that it will have applications whose usefulness is only now becoming apparent to researchers outside computer science. A drug researcher, for example, could try to attach a drug molecule to another compound, sensing as well as observing the likely interaction between the two. Seventy percent of neurons in the human brain are devoted to the task of seeing, van Dam told the Providence Journal at the facility's unveiling, and the cave is a way of having maximum impact on those neurons. "The total effect is, instead of looking through a tiny nineteen-inch pane of glass, you're actually immersed in the environment and can look all around you the way you do in the real world," van Dam said. "That's why we call it virtual reality."

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May / June 1999