Research Profile: Virtualized Reality

Erin Ottosen - 15 December 2014

We work in virtual reality, yes, but with a spin, in that we try to apply it to solving real problems.

- Dr. Pierre Boulanger, Professor of Computing Science, University of Alberta

Step into the Department of Computing Science's Viz Room at the U of A, and you are transported out of this world.

The Viz Room glasses make objects look three-dimensional. The joystick lets you zoom through museums, city terrain, and outer space. As visuals stream past you, giving you the sensation of flying, you may just feel the thrill of escaping the real world.

Considering how fun it can be, it is easy to assume that virtual reality is strictly a fantasy world for playing games. While this is a perfectly valid use, it is far from the only one. Virtual reality can be used for virtually anything.

"What I like best… is that we're all able to bring in our own backgrounds," says Robyn Taylor, a Ph.D. student. "This technology can be used in just about any interest."

Here's how three people at the U of A Department of Computing Science are using virtual reality to pursue very different interests.

Dr. Pierre Boulanger: Virtual Prototyping

After building the first virtual reality room in Canada at NRC (National Research Council Canada), Dr. Pierre Boulanger moved to the U of A to work with Canada's second virtual reality room. He is the director of the U of A's Advanced Man-Machine Interface (AMMI) Laboratory, which explores uses for virtual reality. One use Dr. Boulanger is particularly interested in is virtual prototyping.

Virtual prototyping takes commercial products out of the real world and tests them in virtual reality. For example, one of Dr. Boulanger's students tested a fork in the transmission system of a truck and discovered, virtually, why the fork kept breaking in reality.

"Once you bring real-world objects into the virtual world, the testing you can do is limitless," says Dr. Boulanger.

To enter the virtual world, products are designed on the computer or digitally scanned. Once products are in virtual reality, features such as their shape, size, and density can be changed to improve their design.

Virtual prototyping could save some companies bundles of money. Companies could test and improve their product virtually until it is so close to being ready that they might have to build only one real-world prototype instead of several.

In the case of companies like airplane manufacturer Boeing, which builds products worth millions of dollars, savings in product design could be huge.

Dr. Boulanger says almost all product development can take place in virtual reality, from testing prototypes to planning how to manufacture the finished product.

Robyn Taylor: Music Visualization

Taylor uses music to control the behaviours of a responsive virtual character created by Daniel Torres.

Robyn Taylor is a classically trained soprano singer as well as a Computing Science masters student. For years she did computers by day and music by night and thought that there was no way to combine the two. But thanks to the AMMI lab, she is now visualizing music with the help of computers.

In one of her projects, Taylor changes the coloration of a video by singing and playing keyboards. The video is displayed on a large screen in front of her, and depending on what notes she plays and how she sings, the colors shift between patterns of blues, reds, and yellows.

There's a certain amount of musical improvisation involved, and the responsive video is almost like a musical instrument that produces visual output rather than aural.

"I'm never reaching over to the computer to do anything. Everything's done with the keyboard and the microphone," says Taylor. "That's one of the goals here at the AMMI lab: that interfaces should be intuitive and natural."

As Taylor's work shows, virtual reality can be used to experience and understand the real world in ways that aren't possible in the real world. How often do we "see" music in the real world, for example?

Another example is the Viz Room program that allows you to see the earth's invisible magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is enormous. Raw data just doesn't communicate this fact like the Viz Room does, where you can see that the magnetosphere encircles the earth and stretches well beyond it like a magnificent interstellar spider web.

In the case of Steven Eliuk's work, virtual reality enables you to explore the universe.

Steven Eliuk: Real-Time Graphics

When Steven Eliuk met Dr. Boulanger, he declared he was going to make the biggest computer game the department had ever seen. Dr. Boulanger said, "Ah, you know a lot about graphics?" To which Eliuk had to respond, "Ah, I know nothing."

But, with a group of friends, Eliuk made Operation 411, a game that is indeed known informally as the biggest game, and one of the best, created by students for CMPUT 411, an introductory graphics course.

Eliuk has since moved his work into the biggest arena available: the universe. For his master's in computer graphics, he's perfecting a proportionally accurate, photo-realistic representation of our galaxy, complete with 110,000 stars. The planets even rotate just like they do in space. And, you can rocket among the celestial bodies in a matter of moments, examining whatever you like.

To build his galaxy, Eliuk used the most accurate data available: NASA's data. He also designed the galaxy to run in real-time, which means your space excursion will never be delayed as you wait for the computer to prepare your next destination.

"I can show (the galaxy) on a huge dome or (on a desktop computer), and I can show how the universe happened or how eclipses occur or what space looked like to the Egyptians 5,000 years ago," says Eliuk.