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Take a walk through a human brain? Fly over the surface of Mars? Computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago are pushing science fiction closer to reality with a virtual world where a researcher wearing 3D glasses can do all that and more.
In the system, known as CAVE2, a screen encircles the viewer 320 degrees. A panorama of images springs from 72 stereoscopic liquid crystal display panels, conveying a sense of being able to touch what's not there.
As far back as 1950, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury imagined a children's nursery that could make bedtime stories disturbingly real. Star Trek fans might remember the holodeck as the virtual playground where the Enterprise crew relaxed in fantasy worlds.
The computer scientists have more serious matters in mind when they hand visitors 3D glasses and a controller called a "wand". Scientists today share a common challenge: How to truly understand overwhelming amounts of data. Jason Leigh, co-inventor of the CAVE2 virtual reality system, believes this technology answers that challenge.
"In the next five years, we anticipate using the CAVE to look at large-scale data to help scientists make sense of that information," Leigh said.
The CAVE2 virtual world could change the way doctors are trained and improve patient care, Leigh said. Pharmaceutical researchers could use it to model the way new drugs bind to proteins in the human body. Car designers could virtually "drive" their new vehicle designs.
Imagine turning massive amounts of data—the forces behind a hurricane, for example—into a simulation that a weather researcher could enlarge and explore from the inside. Architects could walk through their skyscrapers before they are built. Surgeons could rehearse a procedure.
But the size and expense of room-based virtual reality systems may prove insurmountable barriers, said Henry Fuchs, a computer science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is familiar with the CAVE technology but wasn't involved in its development.