Future of science: Using 3-D worlds to visualize data
Take a walk through a human brain? Fly over the surface of Mars? Computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago are pushing science fiction closer to reality with a wraparound virtual world where a researcher wearing 3-D glasses can do all that and more.
In the system, known as CAVE2, an 8-foot-high screen encircles the viewer 320 degrees. A panorama of images springs from 72 stereoscopic liquid crystal display panels, conveying a dizzying sense of being able to touch what's not really there.
As far back as 1950, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury imagined a children's nursery that could make bedtime stories disturbingly real. “Star Trek” fans might remember the holodeck as the virtual playground where the fictional Enterprise crew relaxed in fantasy worlds.
The Illinois computer scientists have more serious matters in mind when they hand visitors 3-D glasses and a controller called a “wand.” Scientists in many fields today share a common challenge: How to truly understand overwhelming amounts of data. Jason Leigh, co-inventor of the CAVE2 virtual reality system, believes this technology answers that challenge.
“In the next five years, we anticipate using the CAVE to look at really large-scale data to help scientists make sense of that information. CAVEs are essentially fantastic lenses for bringing data into focus,” Leigh said.
The CAVE2 virtual world could change the way doctors are trained and improve patient care, Leigh said. Pharmaceutical researchers could use it to model the way new drugs bind to proteins in the human body. Car designers could virtually “drive” their vehicle designs.
Imagine turning enormous amounts of data — the forces behind a hurricane, for example — into a simulation that a weather researcher could enlarge and explore from the inside. Architects could walk through their skyscrapers before they are built. Surgeons could rehearse a procedure using data from an individual patient.
But the size and expense of room-based virtual reality systems may prove insurmountable barriers to widespread use, said Henry Fuchs, a computer science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is familiar with the CAVE technology but wasn't involved in its development.
While he calls the CAVE2 “a national treasure,” Fuchs predicts a smaller technology such as Google's Internet-connected eyeglasses will do more to revolutionize medicine than the CAVE. Still, he says large displays are the best way today for people to interact and collaborate.
Believers include the people at Marshalltown, Iowa-based Mechdyne Corp., which has licensed the CAVE2 technology for three years and plans to market it to hospitals, the military and in the oil and gas industry, said Kurt Hoffmeister of Mechdyne.
In Chicago, researchers and graduate students are creating virtual scenarios for testing in the CAVE2. The Mars flyover is created from real NASA data. The brain tour is based on the layout of blood vessels in a real patient.
Brain surgeon Ali Alaraj remembered the first time he viewed the brain using the CAVE2.
“You can walk between the blood vessels,” said the University of Illinois College of Medicine neurosurgeon. “You can look at the arteries from below. You can look at the arteries from the side. ... That was science fiction for me.”
Would doctors process information faster with fewer errors using CAVE2? That's the question behind a proposed study that would compare CAVE2 to conventional methods of detecting brain aneurysms and determining proper treatment, said Andreas Linninger, UIC professor of bioengineering, chemical engineering and computer science.
But it's not all serious business at the lab.
In his spare time during the past two years, research assistant Arthur Nishimoto has been programming the CAVE2 computer with the specifications for the fictional Starship Enterprise. He now can walk around his life-size recreation of the TV spacecraft.
The original technology, introduced in the early 1990s, was called CAVE, which stood for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment and also cleverly referred to Plato's cave, the philosopher's analogy about shadows and reality. It was named by former lab co-directors Tom DeFanti and Dan Sandin.
The second generation of the CAVE, invented by Leigh and his collaborator Andy Johnson, has higher resolution. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.
“It's fantastic to come to work. Every day is like getting to live a science fiction dream,” Leigh said. “To do science in this kind of environment is absolutely amazing.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- AT&T evolves beyond phones
- How to cover work history gaps
- Financial planning for disabled people a little-tapped field
- Developer hopes to make Allegheny Center a tech hub
- Taxes matter in fund investing, even when there’s no bill
- Drenching rains green pastures, bode well for cattle herd expansion in Great Plains
- Shareholder vote causes ATI to review executive pay packages
- This robot is cute, artificially intelligent and employed
- Parent of Lane Bryant, Justice to buy owner of Ann Taylor for $2B
- American Eagle posts improved first-quarter results
- Murray Energy expects to lay off as many as 1,800 more