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Science: All Hands on Holodeck
[April 16, 2007]

Science: All Hands on Holodeck


(Columbian, The (Vancouver, WA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 16--Something surprisingly like science fiction is being developed in the basement of WSU Vancouver's Classroom Building. The project started quietly but is now causing a commotion, like the smoke that recently oozed from the mysterious lab's corner doorway.

The building had to be cleared. The fire department responded. Professor Dene Grigar sheepishly let everyone know that there was nothing to worry about. It was just mist, coming from one of the peripherals of her new virtual reality lab.

Grigar is creating a prototype of a place where dream worlds can become elaborate interactive environments, like the holodeck on "Star Trek." At this point, she needs smoke. No mirrors. She will open the lab to the public for the first time Wednesday.


Think back 40 years to the original "Star Trek" communicators that look like today's cell phones. Technology imagined in popular science fiction often inspires real-life scientists and researchers, such as Grigar and her colleagues, to make it so.

In "Star Trek," the ship's crew could go into the holodeck, and it would transform from a room with a grid into anything the operator could imagine. The holodeck could replay historical scenes, test theories, provide exercise, teach courses or just offer a reprieve from ship life by creating a virtual paradise for relaxation and recreation.

One of the first steps in making a mass-produced version of immersive and physically interactive technology was Dance Dance Revolution, created by Konami Digital Entertainment Inc. in the late 1990s. Players of that game interact with a virtual environment that plays out on a video screen by dancing around on a stage-like controller pad.

Nintendo Co. followed with Wii late last year. Wii enables players to control the on-screen action by physically acting out intended movements, such as swinging an arm as if rolling a bowling ball or punching like a boxer.

Wii is rudimentary compared to the technology in the WSU Vancouver lab.

"This is the future of game development," Grigar says. "If people are going to want this in their house, then they are going to want more and more sophisticated games. ? This is the beginning of the holodeck experience."

In the WSU Vancouver room, the lab's equipment connects high-powered computers and cameras with sophisticated motion-tracking software to create an invisible grid that's 12 feet wide, 12 feet long and 6 feet 8 inches high. The grid serves as a sophisticated motion detector for what looks like a dance floor in the center of the room.

When a player stands on the dance floor with a hand-held tracking device, about the size of a hockey puck, the system can locate precisely where the device is. As the tracking device is moved around, the computer reacts with preprogrammed responses, based on time and space.

As an example, a person holding the tracker at waist level in the center of the room could turn on a spotlight. Raising the tracker to shoulder height could then trigger a video to play on a wall. A few seconds later, moving the tracker back down to waist level could start a song. The options of manipulating the system to get a variety of responses are limitless. What researchers using this technology haven't yet figured out is how to make the responses create an experience so rich that it feels like an alternate reality.

The equipment in WSU Vancouver's lab was developed by APR Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta.

APR President and Founder Will Bauer is a leader in the research and development of motion-tracking systems. Along with academic research, APR's technology is being used in the entertainment industry to manipulate lights and smoke machines at pop music concerts as well as theatrical productions. It was, for example, incorporated into the extravagant Broadway rendition of "The Lion King."

Grigar hopes to eventually use the lab to create her own performance art.

First, though, she has to master the tools. So Grigar is experimenting with her three-dimensional virtual space. The grid in the lab can be programmed to trigger various media, including music, sound, animation, still images, light, smoke and wall-sized videos as well as any combination of those. Better yet, through a high-speed Internet connection, Grigar and her research partner, Steve Gibson at the University of Victoria in Canada, can operate their labs together in real-time, including performing joint artistic pieces. They can manipulate the technology to appear as virtual figures in each other's spaces.

Grigar says the future of this technology will feature even more intuitive controls.

These labs will be using voice recognition within a year, Bauer predicts, and full-body recognition in about three years.

By adding this lab to its campus, WSU Vancouver is giving the 100 or so students in the digital technology and culture program access to tools, technology and concepts being studied in only about a half-dozen other universities in North America.

Even though this field is pushing the borders of known research, Gibson says, anyone who has watched an episode of "Star Trek" can begin to imagine where it could go.

"Real-time video is still really difficult" for computers to process and respond to without lag, Gibson acknowledges. "Real-time holograms, at this point, are out of the question."

Grigar, who started working at WSU in the fall, has been finishing her lab and calibrating it over the past few months in preparation for the public unveiling this week. She also has begun work on an exhibit for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, called "Mindful Play Environment," that will debut in November. In that, three people at a time will be able to collaborate to make music and a multimedia presentation together.

"The technology is not only educational and cutting-edge, but it's also a whole lot of fun," says Janell Jones, OMSI's director of traveling and temporary exhibits. "It gives our visitors the opportunity to be creative, to move their bodies in different ways and to learn about new technologies."

Bauer is working on infrared trackers that have more controls built into them, to allow more complex and sophisticated responses from the computers. Processing speeds, Internet connections and cameras are getting more powerful. Researchers and scientists intensely are studying the idea. But a holodeck?

"That's pretty far in the future," Grigar says. "Yet you can see where we are headed. We already are simulating parts of it. ? It's an intellectual curiosity. When you get something like this in your head, you want to see it happen. When you start getting close to it, you start thinking what else do I need to do?"

How much does virtual reality technology cost?

Virtual reality comes in a variety of forms, ranging from Web-based games to a helmet-and-gloves kit to full-sized immersion rooms.

On the high end is the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment which costs about $1 million. It creates simulated realities with projected images on the walls, floor and ceiling of a room-sized cube.

A motion-capture lab, which costs about $300,000, looks at objects from multiple angles to capture and store shapes and types of movement.

In motion-tracking, a hand-held device called a tracker allows computers to pinpoint coordinates in a three-dimensional space and respond as instructed. The hardware used in the WSU Vancouver lab, designed by APR Inc. of Edmonton, Canada, costs $30,000. The money to pay for the lab was donated by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation through Steve Gibson at the University of Victoria in Canada. WSU Vancouver provided another $50,000 to transform one of its standard classrooms into the specifications needed for the research and application of these tools.

IF YOU GO:

--What: Demonstration of the new MOVE (Motion-tracking Virtual Environment) Lab at WSU Vancouver, connecting in real-time with a similar lab in Canada.

--When: 10:35 a.m. Wednesday.

--Where: WSU Vancouver, 14204 N.E. Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver; in the basement of the Classroom Building, room No. 3.

--Cost: Free.

--Information: Audience members must reserve spots in advance through 360-546-9487. Seating is extremely limited.

--On the Web: Dene Grigar shows off the MOVE Lab at columbian.com/video.

To see more of The Columbian, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbian.com.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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