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UMaine virtual reality lab creates something from nothing

Rob Stigile, Maine Campus features editor, tries on the Head Mounted Display at the VEMI lab.
Jesse Scardina
Rob Stigile, Maine Campus features editor, tries on the Head Mounted Display at the VEMI lab.

Imagine you are in a Boston hotel room on the 20th floor when all of a sudden an explosion rocks the building, shattering glass and activating alarms of various kinds throughout the neighborhood.

This emergency scenario presents a multitude of barriers on the path to safety: blocked exits, hallways engulfed in flames, streets closed by safety personnel and widespread pandemonium of all shapes and sizes.

For now, you would have to depend on your own knowledge of the area to safely evacuate. In the future, however, a few punches on your smartphone’s screen could chart the path to salvation complete with detours around obstacles, whether indoors or out.

Researchers at the University of Maine’s Virtual Environmental and Multimodal Interaction lab are currently working on that problem, combining ideas similar to real-time GPS directions and Google Maps’ street view with computer-generated landscapes to assist users in navigating sometimes labyrinthine hallways.

According to Hengshan Li, a doctoral student in UMaine’s department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering who is helping develop the technology, said it is “comparable to outdoor GPS in a vehicle, but we want to design a system in a mobile phone to assist people with navigation indoors.”

With a Consumer Electronics Association estimate of 15.1 million automotive GPS navigation units sold in 2008, the market for a portable platform that transfers seamlessly from outside to indoors is lucrative, to say the least.

The National Science Foundation apparently realized the value of this technology, awarding the VEMI lab a continuing grant that has funded more than $478,000 since August 2009.

At its most basic level, researchers at the VEMI lab are attempting to use the information humans receive through various sensory input channels — auditory, tactile and visual — to create a virtual space that mimics the real world as accurately as possible.

Nicholas Giudice, the VEMI lab director, said the idea is to then take that modeling technology and create a visual navigational aid.

Apart from current GPS mapping technology that gives step-by-step directions from one point to another, Giudice said people currently rely on a mental map to move through their environments, which can sometimes prove problematic.

“You’re operating on this cognitive map, this mental map of the world,” Giudice said. “Why are some people so good and some people — it’s amazing they even get out of their house.”

Make no mistake: the highly detailed models under development in the VEMI lab are a far cry from the red and black wire frame recreations popularized by Nintendo’s Virtual Boy game system.

“We had to stop someone recently from sitting on a couch — to me, that’s success,” Giudice said.

Of course, this being an experiment in virtually recreating environments, the physical lab space offers few clues as to the electronic world within. The Head Mounted Display (HMD) that hangs from the ceiling resembles a dentist’s examination light, except the adjustable chair has been removed.

The carpet of the room is dotted with colored pieces of tape much like blocking that marks stage directions in a play, while a collection of computers is clustered behind a partition.

Throw on the HMD and boot up a simulation, however, and instantly you’ll be transported to a modern apartment, complete with realistic light and shadows, rooms full of furniture and windows that look out over the city’s rooftops.

Or, you could find yourself standing in the middle of I-95, the sounds of cars whizzing past on either side, rising and fading in line with the Doppler effect.

“We had this pit with a plank over it, and I’d tell people ‘OK, walk across that plank,’ and you can put alligators in there, and they’re petrified.” Giudice said. “You say, ‘OK, get down and feel [the floor]. You know you’re in the lab, right?’”

A large part of successful virtual recreations is the ability of the scene to change according to the user’s movements and actions, Giudice said. For example, a high-definition television can show realistic images and make the viewer feel as though he or she has become part of the action, but one turn of the head ruins the subterfuge — not so with VEMI’s HMD technology.

Transferring that constantly shifting perspective from the laboratory to a mobile phone is one of the major challenges Li’s research faces. Whereas a GPS can show information like location and direction outdoors, anyone who has driven through a tunnel knows the limitations of satellite communication inside buildings. Even the VEMI system uses a series of cameras to track a light mounted on top of the headset to track the user’s location.

“Direction is relatively easy. I can use the inertia cube in the smartphone to tell position,” Li said, adding that the ability to track movement throughout a building remains elusive.

Other groups working on the tracking problem have attempted to use various existing technologies like Wi-Fi that are commonly found in buildings. Others have turned to Radio Frequency Identification — the technology SmartTrip uses to track a vehicle’s progress along the highway — as a way of sensing individual’s movement, however costly receivers remain a hurdle.

Once the technology is fully developed, VEMI researchers are ready to apply it in a variety of scenarios outside of general navigation assistance. One idea Li suggested is to track shoppers’ movements inside a mall, information the facility’s managers could then use to design the physical space in a more user-friendly fashion by placing commonly associated stores and eating areas in a sequential manner.

On a broader scale, the VEMI lab’s research could be used to model a variety of situations, free from the limitations of the real world.

“It’s based on similar physics, but virtual reality physics can change. You can make the sun come up in the north — you can’t obviously do that in the real world,” Giudice said. “You can set up an environment where there’s transparent walls.”

While designing a glass house could certainly make for some fun adventures in the electronic world, the ability to manipulate the physics of an environment allows for more than merely entertainment. Giudice referenced current modeling techniques used to determine the impact of proposed windmill sites as a possible local application.

“When Grandma looks off her porch, what’s it going to look like? Well, right now they have these little 2-D things but none of its real, you’re not actually there,” he said. “If we model the terrain, if we model the distance, we do the correct sound propagation — we could actually simulate this.”

As with any scientific research, test subjects are always in demand at the VEMI lab. Those who wish to participate — studies typically pay participants for their time — can visit www.vemilab.org to select a study.

A word to the wise, susceptibility to motion sickness and the HMD technology do not mix well, a point Giudice made abundantly clear following a simulation test on Tuesday.

“Did you spew?” he asked, reentering the room.