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Internet's Next Stop

Virtual Reality Environments Let Users Interact with Images
Source: USA Today, May 11, 1995
By Kevin Maney

USA Today

ARGONNE, Ill.-Scientist Rick Stevens hands each of a dozen visitors what look like oversize Ray Ban sunglasses as they step into the next- generation Internet, the granddaddy of all computer networks.

Yes, they literally walk into a room and are surrounded by three- dimensional images generated by a computer. The system at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the first trials to put 3-D virtual reality on line. Some people who worked on the original Internet say this is what comes next. It's the technology that masses of people will use after today's red-hot World Wide Web-the most popular area of the Internet-becomes as passť as Pong.

It is astonishing. The system can make computer-animated fish swim around your legs, then rush to nibble cartoon food dropped from a hand- held wand. It can let people thousands of miles apart design a full- scale car together, walk around it, look under the hood. Someday, systems like this may let a grandfather play with his grandchild who lives in another city. Both would interact with full-size, three- dimensional images of the other-like a whole-person video phone call.

The 3-D room, called the CAVE-short for Cave Automatic Virtual Environments-is a big step into the future. Connecting them is a bigger step. There are CAVEs at General Motors, Cornell University and a few other places, including the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

USA TODAY was allowed to join an exclusive demonstration of the Argonne CAVE for telecommunications companies and potential users, including Ford and McDonald's. Ford is looking at it to design cars without building expensive prototypes. McDonald's might use the system to design restaurants, train staff or entertain patrons.

This month, the federal government plans to announce support for the project. In December, at the Supercomputer '95 trade show in San Diego, Argonne and collaborators plan to end a year-long rush to build the technology by putting on a major public demonstration.

"It's such a right time to do this, and it's within our grasp," says Charles Catlett, associate director at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. He was a member of the group that created the NSFnet, now the Internet, a global computer network of some 20 million users. Computer and communications scientists, he says, "are gravitating to this now."

The system starts with Argonne's CAVE. It looks like a 10-foot-square white room with one missing wall. Actually, the walls are projector screens. Surround-sound speakers hang in each corner. The CAVE is connected to an IBM supercomputer system that takes up a room itself. The whole thing can pump information into the CAVE at 10,000 times the speed of a Pentium personal computer hooked to a 14,400-baud modem.

Sevens asks the technicians to turn on the CAVE and a blurry image of a machine-shop floor and a computer-generated grinding machine comes up on all the walls. Visitors are asked to put on the glasses. Each pair has a tiny infrared sensor on the bridge. It reads an unseen beam bouncing around inside the cave to coordinate the image with the glasses, making each eye see the image intended for it. Put on the glasses, and the image pops into crystal-clear 3-D all around.

The glasses aren't the blinding goggles of most virtual reality systems. Participants can still see each other as if they were looking through regular sunglasses. There are no earphones. Sound comes from the speakers. Several people in a CAVE could interact and collaborate.

One person in the CAVE wears glasses that have a slender ear-to-ear band. On top is a tiny magnetic tracking device that tells the computer where the person is in the room.

Put on those glasses, take hold of the wand-kind of a 3-D mouse-and you can control the CAVE. In the machine-shop demo, you can turn on the machine and run materials through it and change the angle or speed of the grinding wheel. You can walk around the machine to see it from the back, in 3-D. You can even stick your head under the wheel-probably not what engineers had in mind when creating this test project for designing sensitive industrial grinders.

Using the CAVE is almost as intuitive as walking around in real life. "As you're playing with it, you're actually driving a supercomputer, which is not something most people get to do," Stevens says.

The visitors ooh and ahh as Stevens changes the CAVE simulation to put them inside a gigantic electromagnet, watching atomic particles fly past. In the real world, no one could go inside such a magnet or see such particles. But the CAVE lets engineers change the magnet's design and see how particles react. It also could let engineering students see and understand high-tech magnet design in ways never before possible.

Finally, Stevens turns on the fish tank. Some of the animated fish look like airplanes with gills, making the visitors chuckle. All the fish are in striking 3-D, swimming at all different depths and angles.

The year-long project to connect CAVES is called I-WAY, for Information Wide Area Year. I-WAY members have run multi-CAVE tests, but widespread networks that can handle such high-intensity communications still need to be built. That's why companies such as Pacific Telesis and Sprint were invited here.

The I-WAY project is a serious drive to make virtual reality communications happen. Some early applications could be amazing, says Mary Spada of Global Growth Strategies, a consultant to I-WAY. One is virtual firefighter training. A supercomputer could be programmed to run the sessions. CAVEs in major cities could connect to that computer and let recruits learn how to fight an almost-real fire without risk.

During a lunch break, two executives from McDonalds-both eating salads- talk about how their company might use connected CAVEs. Besides designing restaurants, McDonald's might use it to train employees. "We could put somebody in a CAVE and simulate a situation (like an angry customer) and let him or her react to it," says Patrick Krause of McDonald's computer department.

Eventually, smaller, portable devices might be able to project 3-D virtual reality images the way the cumbersome CAVE does now. Such devices, Krause says, might go into McDonald's restaurants. "It would be kids' first experience with virtual reality, and it would be associated with McDonald's."

Argonne's Stevens, sitting next to the McDonald's guys, adds that professional couples who travel a lot might like to go to restaurants that can put a 3-D screen across the table and connect it back home. "Have dinner with your virtual reality spouse," he says, not at all joking.

That kind of stuff may be more than a decade away. But clearly, on-line virtual reality is moving forward. Fifty-six applications are being developed for the I-WAY project. Some are esoteric science, but others are like the one from Caterpillar, which may use CAVEs to develop construction vehicles. "We're not too sure exactly how or where all this technology ought to be used, but we think it's promising and we want to stay on the forefront of learning about it," says Caterpillar's Kem Ahlers.

In April, MCI unveiled a super-network called vBNS, which connects five supercomputer sites for scientific applications. The network also might handle CAVE connections and begin creating the next Internet. "Too many view the Internet as the end-all," says MCI chief engineering officer Fred Briggs. "It's one step in what will be ongoing for many years."

After all, the Internet was built in 1985 as a high-end network for science and now it's becoming commonplace and transforming communication. The I-WAY project is about making history repeat. Say's Argonne Lab's Ian Foster: "We need to get people thinking bigger than they ever have before."

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