Chicago • 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 massive 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.