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Fantastic Journey to Next-Generation Virtual Reality Cave

CAVE virtual reality system

The next-generation CAVE will dispense with a dedicated room and adapt to the available space and needs of users.

Credit: Dave Pape / UIC Electronic Visualization Laboratory

A total makeover of a virtual reality device called the CAVE, invented at the University of Illinois at Chicago, promises rewards that could make Aladdin jealous.

"It'll be the first 3-D flat-paneled display system to provide so much resolution it'll match human visual acuity—literally 20/20 vision quality," says Jason Leigh, associate professor of computer science and director of UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL). "It will be the most amazing-looking, three-dimensional virtual environment anyone has ever seen."

Leigh and lead investigator and computer science associate professor Andrew Johnson, EVL associate director Maxine Brown, and EVL computer science adjunct assistant professor Tom Peterka have received a three-year, U.S. National Science Foundation grant to help build what the UIC team calls the "NG" or "Next Generation" CAVE.

CAVE, a UIC-trademarked acronym for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, was invented in 1992 and subsequently sold by licensed vendors to museums, industrial users and academic institutions around the world. NG-CAVE offers a leap up the virtual reality ladder at lower costs with less maintenance than the original CAVE.

That CAVE used projectors to create images on screens in specially built rooms. Users wore heavy goggles to get a 3-D effect. NG-CAVE takes advantage of thin, nearly seamless LCD panels, 3-D film overlays, lightweight 3-D glasses and computers many magnitudes faster than those used to drive the original model.

CAVE components are bought "off-the-shelf" and modified by EVL in ways that turn consumer electronics into sophisticated research tools. EVL works with electronics manufacturers to help enhance product specifications to meet CAVE requirements. That makes CAVEs work better, but also upgrades the technology in commercial electronics devices.

"Our 'special sauce' is the software, which we essentially give away as open source," says Brown. "It's the operating system to control this mass of equipment," she says.

"The new CAVE, made out of flat panels, adapts to the available space and the needs of the users," says Johnson. "Previously users had to adapt a space to the needs of the CAVE, requiring a dedicated room with controlled lighting and enough space for projectors."

The NG-CAVE will deliver graphical and textual information with greater detail and brighter displays than the original and can be used as either a 3-D virtual reality environment or a two-dimensional "information wall." Its resolution will be roughly 10 times greater than the original CAVE. It can be configured for use by small or large groups and networked to share experiences simultaneously by groups around the world.

UIC's students will help EVL's multidisciplinary research staff configure equipment into an NG-CAVE and ultimately work with end-users to tailor applications to run on it. UIC scientists along with government and private industry researchers are eager to test this tool, which in its original configuration could create virtual images of a single molecule as big as a human and reduce a towering thunderstorm to something a human could hover over and examine like a deity.

Leigh says creating a CAVE is essentially a community effort involving scientists, artists, technicians, academics and industrialists who see virtual environments as tools to translate the ethereal and fantastic into real products and services for the future.

"The goal is to stimulate a community to build-out these devices and capabilities and create new research areas that a community can foster," he says.

Development of NG-CAVE is funded through a $702,000 National Science Foundation grant and $300,000 from UIC. The NSF award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.


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