11 November 2011 | 0
The corridor outside IADT’s CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment is lined with easels as I am led inside by head of school at the centre for creative technologies and applications Andrew Power. "We have a lot of painters beside us," he explains. It’s an amusing juxtaposition: a classical mode of expression rubbing shoulders with a state-of-the-art virtual environment. The positioning implies all manner of creative conflicts: paint versus code; the pursuit of realism over the abstract; bright classrooms versus a cold dark lab space; obsessive geeks versus aloof artisans. Rather than represent the polarisation of these two groups, however, the lab offers a place of convergence, with applications that both sit within and transcend the boundaries of arts and computer science.
Running since 2008 after an investment of over €560,000 by Enterprise Ireland, the CAVE has been used by students and researchers across disciplines practical and academic to replicate spaces and build prototypes of entirely new ones.
The laboratory is a dark room humming to the sound of ventilators keeping the equipment cool temperature. The CAVE itself consists of three rear-projection screens, with the floor acting as a down-projection screen. The user wears a heavy set of LCD 3D glasses and a uses wand to manipulate their surroundings or control movement.
While in the CAVE I was presented with three scenarios. The first involved a road traffic accident involving an articulated lorry. In front of me on the floor was a hole in the ground bridged by a single plank of wood. Looking down into the ‘hole’ there was a drop of approximately 50 feet. Despite the heavy glasses, PC-game graphics and conversation about the nature of the lab while using it, the effect was still remarkably convincing, and it took a small bit of convincing that moving off the plank won’t do me any harm.
Managing the demonstration from a PC beside the CAVE Grainne Kirwan, lecturer in psychology and an expert in computer-mediated communication, said virtual environments can be used to create situations for applications beyond gaming: "This specific scenario would be used for health and safety training."
Kirwan’s second demonstration, a street scene in Iraq, covers is a more familiar gaming experience. As helicopter gunships fly overhead a robot aide appears from one of the screens and a large handgun appears in front of me. A clock on the top right screen keeps track of the time and my score. It’s the sensation of moving forward, knowing that I might walk into the front screen but not able to discern accurately where it is that proves the most problematic part of the experience.
Power and Kirwan said the facility is open to students and researchers from a diverse selection of fields.
"This has been a useful tool for us in different disciplines," Andrew Power said. "Our psychologists have been using it to explore perception and depth and to understand how people react to different situations and it’s a way of creating a world that you couldn’t do in real space. Similarly our software engineers and programmers would be interested in creating environments for first person shoot-em-up games. A third group of people would be in our film makers group. They’ve done things like running around Temple Bar in a shopping cart shooting in all directions and then loading it onto these four walls. As you walk along you get the sense of walking through Temple Bar because the ground, floor, ceiling all moves with you."
The third example I am shown is a mock-up of the Natural History Museum in Dublin and some simple exhibits presented in the middle of the floor, viewable from all angles. Power explains how this kind of modelling could be used as a way to store and recreate galleries elsewhere or as a tool for architects to gauge the feasibility of a design. "You could imagine an architect being able to walk around inside [a building] before a brick was laid, you can imagine if someone was being treated for some phobia using aversion therapy that you could produce whatever it is there were afraid of, be it spiders or whatever, you could introduce them very gently in this kind of environment then you could increase as you get more use to it."
While the projects the CAVE is being put to use on are on the bleeding edge, the technology itself has been around since 1992. The inevitable upgrade to being able to interact with virtual environments without the need for a physical controller is looming large. The obvious addition already on the market is Microsoft’s Kinect controller popularised by the Xbox 360 console and about to make its debut as a PC peripheral thanks to the efforts of the hacking and open source communities.
Grainne Kirwan said: "There has been a certain amount done with head-mounted virtual reality systems where they use the Kinect to simulate driving games, and that can be done quite effectively."
It looks like the forward movement of the CAVE project lies in people’s abilities to move unfettered within it.