The virtual reality world of Star Trek's Holodeck has been brought a step closer to reality by the development of a Cybersphere (a collaboration between University of Warwick's Warwick Manufacturing Group and virtual reality company VR Systems UK).
Virtual environments have been extensively used in planetariums and military flight simulators where images are projected onto the inside of a large hemispherical surface or in CAVE systems, whereby images are back-projected onto walls and the floor of a room. However all of these suffer one important limitation - i.e. the inability to move around the virtual environment in a natural way.
Warwick Manufacturing Group researcher Vinesh Raja and VR Systems Principal Design Engineer Julian Eyre, have found that the Cybersphere can solve these problems by mounting a large (3.5 metres in diameter), hollow, translucent sphere on a ring of bearings with an additional low-pressure cushion of air allowing the sphere to rotate in any direction. The walking motion of the observer in the centre of the sphere causes it to rotate. The movement of the large sphere is transferred to a smaller secondary sphere which is held against the large projection sphere by means of spring loaded supports. The movement of the smaller sphere is then measured by rotation sensors, and the signals are used to update the images projected on the surface of the large sphere allowing the observer to walk, run, or crawl in any direction.
A number of high power projectors are used in combination to project the images which combine to provide a fully immersive visual experience for the observer and gives the illusion of walking freely through the computer generated environment.
The collaborators are already in discussion with organisations wishing to use the technology for applications as diverse as computer gaming, military simulations and manufacturing engineering product and factory design projects.
The prototype Cybersphere will be one of the new technologies on display when the University of Warwick's Warwick Manufacturing Group, launches a new virtual reality 3D complex on Tuesday 24 October 2000 see separate press release . The complex, in partnership with PTC, and Sun Microsystems, will also boast a 3D visualisation theatre which will employ the largest 3D capable screen ever installed by virtual reality specialists Trimension.
The development of the Cybersphere was partly funded by a £45,000 DTI SMART award.
More technical detail on the Cybersphere can be found at http://www.ndirect.co.uk/~vr-systems/sphere1.htm
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