StarCAVE Simulator Brings Sci-Fi to Life

    Unbeknownst to most students Warren College’s Atkinson Hall has, for over a year, been housing a 360-degree virtual reality room — the StarCAVE. And yes, it’s as technologically advanced as it sounds.

    Consisting of a pentagon-shaped room outfitted with 15 wall-mounted projection screens, StarCAVE is a virtual reality simulator that renders 3D objects and environments in a realistic, almost tangible manner. The technology has a number of practical applications, including the visualization of protein chains for biological research and the projection of architectural structures which viewers are able to interact with as if in real life.

    The image quality of projections in a five-walled room is greater than was possible in cubic-shaped virtual reality rooms.

    “As with your laptop, if you look at the screen at an angle, it makes the picture more difficult to see,” said Jurgen Schulze, a project scientist at Cal-(IT)2 and main contributor to the StarCAVE. “It eventually goes dark. The cubic rooms had all 90-degree angles, but the pentagonal shape increases the angles, and that’s the key to decreasing the differences between the different projection screens. The closer the CAVE is to being a perfectly spherical shape, the easier it is to view the images.”

    The 3D eyewear used in visualization has also been improved upon from previous generations of the 3D simulator. Instead of requiring heavy, battery-operated “shutter” glasses, the newest incarnation of the simulator employs lightweight, polarized glasses similar to everyday eyewear. Styles range from big and bug-eyed to wrap-around, each easy and comfortable to wear.

    Primary StarCAVE contributor Jurgen Schulze demonstrates the cave’s simulator program. The virtual reality room is currently in its third, most advanced incarnation, with five walls and 15 screens.

    While engaged in the simulation, viewers also wear a visor fitted with a tracking system on top, allowing the CAVE to monitor the locations of those engaged in the simulation at all times and to adjust the visualizations accordingly. When viewing a building, for example, the viewer is able to circle it freely and even experience the feeling of moving through it.

    StarCAVE has proved particularly useful in the study of proteins. Inside the CAVE, scientists can maneuver proteins so as to view them from their preferred angle. Viewers can choose to not only rotate the proteins, but view them from either inside (where one can see individual chains) or outside (a colorful, lumpy sphere with divots where surface proteins are located).

    In addition, each chain is color-coded, allowing scientists to discern between several distinct proteins.

    The viewer controls his or her visualization experience with a joystick. When viewing images in 3D, the joystick projects a purple “wand,” which resembles a lightsaber out of “Star Wars” and is used to select and move images for research purposes, moving easily and rapidly around the screen in response to the direction of the viewer’.

    The StarCAVE is being used for medical, biological, and archaeological visualizations.

    “We can display CT and MRI scans, as well as confocal images, using biological statistics,” Schulze said.

    The team has also worked with UCSD archaeology professor Tom Levy in order to visualize ancient excavation sites in Jordan, Schulze said.
    CAVE (CaveAutomatic Virtual Environment) technology has been used for virtual reality simulations since 1991, when the first CAVE was constructed by a group led by Tom DeFanti, who is currently the director of visualization at Cal-(IT)2. StarCAVE, built by the UCSD division of Cal-(IT)2, represents the third-generation model of this technology.

    The StarCAVE project took less than $1 million to complete.

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