A small step closer to a virtual world

November 3, 2000

Researchers at the University of Warwick have brought the possibility of virtual worlds as immersive as the real world a step closer.

Until now virtual environments have been severely limited by the fact that the user could not move around naturally. The present computer-generated environments work through images projected onto the inside of a large hemispherical surface or onto the walls and floor of a room, as extensively used in planetariums and military flight simulators.

But Warwick Manufacturing Group and virtual reality company VR Systems UK believe they have developed a more realistic environment in the form of Cybersphere, launched last week.

Vinesh Raja, WMG researcher, and Julian Eyre, VR Systems principal design engineer, have found a way to solve limited- movement problems by mounting a hollow, translucent sphere, 3.5m in diameter, with a low-pressure cushion of air that allows the sphere to rotate in any direction.

The walking motion of the observer in the centre of the sphere causes it to rotate. The movement of the large sphere is transferred to a 500mm secondary ball that is held against the large projection sphere by spring-loaded supports. The movement of the smaller sphere is measured by rotation sensors, and the signals are used to update the images projected on the surface of the large sphere, allowing the observer to walk, run or crawl in any direction.

A number of high-power projectors are used to project the images, which combine with the movement to provide a fully immersive visual experience for the observer, who enjoys the illusion of walking freely through the computer-generated environment.

Dr Raja said: "You feel you are in the environment. There are fewer problems with nausea than with a headset environment.

"We've used the Cybersphere to demonstrate new factory layouts, and other virtual buildings. We've also managed to play the PC game Doom on it, which was really great."

Cybersphere's creators are in discussion with organisations that wish to use the technology for applications as diverse as games, military simulations and manufacturing engineering product and factory design projects.

Cybersphere was partly funded by a £45,000 Department of Trade and Industry Smart award.

The prototype Cybersphere was one of the new technologies on display when the Warwick Manufacturing Group launched a reality 3D complex. The complex, developed in partnership with PTC and Sun Microsystems, has a 3D visualisation theatre with a large 3D capable screen, installed by virtual reality specialists Trimension, that is the first of its kind in Europe.

Until now engineers have been able to use 3D techniques only to model the manufacturing process of a product at a single work station. The new complex will allow groups of people to simultaneously visualise the engineering process in 3D. The theatre will allow them to go beyond 3D visualisation of products to 3D visualisations of production plants, manufacturing processes, management systems and e-commerce and e-production processes.

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