Energy's VR model links scientists at remote sites

DOE officials said the VR program would change the way labs conduct scientific
research.


Officials from DOE and the


Defense Department recently demonstrated the virtual lab application. Energy is
investing in two projects totaling $17 million to produce a working collective laboratory.


Ultimately, the department wants to link its labs on a distributed network. The idea is
that scientists would be able to share data, and even control equipment such as electron
microscopes, from remote locations.


How would this work? To use a virtual lab, a scientist would step into a VR machine
complete with headgear and a hand controller. The scientist's image would be displayed in
a high-resolution virtual world as a computerized avatar. The user's departmental logo
would be on the avatar's chest to help others in the lab identify all participants.
Scientists would interact in the virtual lab and communicate with others in real time.


Pictures and data would be displayed on special panels to let researchers make
presentations. By pointing a hand, the scientist could gesture to different data as if
discussing a project in the same room as other participants.


Energy is modeling the virtual lab on its actual laboratories. Manipulating equipment
via the VR application would send commands to lab instruments that would in turn send data
results back to the VR app.


Although DOE's avatars are nondescript, DOD is working on a virtual situation room with
more detail. Kevin Mills, DOD science program manager, said the department is developing a
virtual environment in which avatars would resemble their real-life counterparts, right
down to facial expressions.


Mills said DOD officials envision a program that would let commanders plan air raids
and other battlefield strategies without having to go to the theater of operations.


But Mills said he was concerned with security issues, what he called floor control, for
the Defense VR application. "Security among collaborating members is very important
to us," he said. The technology is in its infancy, DOD and Energy officials
acknowledged.


For now, the VR lab is more dream than reality. Energy is running all its in-house
built software on a pair of Unix workstations: a Sun Microsystems Inc. Ultra 1
Sparcstation and a Silicon Graphics Inc. Indigo. But Energy officials said that as PCs
become more powerful, a PC network could link labs to a live VR lab.


And officials already foresee a need for a more powerful communications backbone. The
test system crashed for a few minutes during the demonstration, and voice transfer from
scientists in the field broke up and became difficult to understand at times.


"I think this shows there is not enough bandwidth to fully carry out these
experiments," said Martha Krebs, DOE's director of energy research.


Energy is relying on the existing DOE Scientific Network, a Sprint Corp. ansynchronous
transfer mode backbone, for its VR prototype. Had DOE run its test across the Internet,
the comm problems would have been worse, Krebs said. Better protocols for data transfer
are crucial for VR, she said.


As an interim step, Energy has tried linking some of its labs using a series of
cameras. With off-the-shelf software products such as LabView from National Instruments of
Austin, Texas, it linked scientists in California and Wisconsin to a control center in
Washington. From the control center, DOE officials talked with scientists across the
country and even operated some machines in wired labs.


For the demo, control center users operated remote machines using simple mouse clicks.
A user was able to gather data from an experiment in California, and the data was then
shared with other scientists.


Krebs said a difficult obstacle to overcome is the design of lab gear because computers
cannot use manual switches to activate equipment.


So if a machine is turned off, there is little a person across the country can do. She
said Energy is working with companies to design new activation systems for equipment.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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