Feds can run high-end computer simulations at virtual reality lab

The RealityZone 3D Collaborative Visualization Laboratory in McLean, Va.,
gives federal users an out-of-body experience in high-end computer simulation.


The simulation lab demonstrates virtual reality systems that would add up to $150,000
or $200,000 a pop if an agency bought the components through General Services
Administration schedule contracts.


The lab is a joint effort of EdgeMark Systems Inc. of Silver Spring, Md., MultiGen Inc.
of San Jose, Calif., Pyramid Systems Inc. of Southfield, Mich., Silicon Graphics Inc. and
WareOnEarth Inc. of McLean.


EdgeMark president Lee Raesly said VR “used to be considered gee-whiz technology
that only engineers could use. RealityZone 3D demonstrates how this technology can
simulate tasks, such as repairing an F-22 aircraft, saving time and money.”


The first thing a visitor notices in the lab is a 5-foot screen to the left of a
Silicon Graphics Octane MXE workstation. The Octane has dual 250-MHz Mips R10000
processors, SGI’s MXE graphics subsystem, 512M of RAM and a high-fidelity audio
processor.


The large screen is fine for flight simulation, but when users want a hands-on
experience, any two-dimensional screen becomes inadequate. That’s when the gloves
come on.


Users wear Pyramid Systems’ ImmersaDesk stereoscopic display glasses for 3-D
visualization. Each lens has a StereoGraphics CrystalEyes 3-D projector that draws
independently at 96 frames per second. The glasses trick the user’s vision, blanking
the left lens while the right processes data and vice versa. The resulting 3-D landscapes
look nearly real.


Either a wand or a pair of data gloves can function as input devices. The wand is a
more primitive control that lets the user float around VR models.


The gloves integrate with MultiGen SmartScene software as a two-handed user interface.
Wearing both gloves simultaneously gives a more realistic impression than single-glove
systems can achieve, said Glenn Waldron, chief technical officer for WareOnEarth. He said
it takes about a day to get used to the two-handed interface. “Once you know which
fingers to pinch and which hand does what, it becomes second nature,” he said.


The software takes advantage of a customizable application programming interface with a
plug-in architecture. The API can adapt the VR system to work with any MultiGen modeling
software and most input devices. One of the demonstration simulations modeled a military
jet taken directly from a computer-aided design program.


Besides the obvious applications, such as scientific visualization, the RealityZone can
accomplish tasks such as office planning.


Using MultiGen modeling tools, users can design an entire floor of a building or
facility and then walk through it. Errors such as doors opening the wrong way or offices
being too small for desks become immediately obvious.


Engineers can design vehicles or components and run complex mathematical models to
demonstrate visually how they would perform if built.


But the real advantage for a federal organization comes when a simulation system is
attached to a network, said William Flynn, president of WareOnEarth.


“With asynchronous transfer mode and other networking technology coming together,
you can branch out and send the data to everyone on a network, not just the people in the
command center,” Flynn said.


“When the people with lower-end machines can contribute to the modeling data,
that’s when it gets really powerful,” he said. “They may not see the
information in 3-D, but as long as they can access the system, you have a powerful tool
for your agency.”


Contact the RealityZone at 703-847-2536.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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