Internet's Next Stop
Virtual Reality Environments Let Users Interact with Images
Source: USA Today, May 11, 1995
By Kevin Maney
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
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
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
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
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."