Kevin Vilt: "I'm not simulating anything. I'm just kind of having fun."

Having fun in the CAVE

One reporter has a blast at Beckman's hottest Virtual Reality Environment

By Kim Nguyen

      From "Virtuosity" to "Disclosure," virtual reality become one of the newest technologies in the movies, and has fascinated the minds of the pubic. I went to visit the virtual reality "CAVE" we have at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I found out what it was really like. The CAVE stands for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment. I talked to Dr. Fady Najjar, a personal friend, who took me through a tour of the CAVE. It was nothing like I expected.
      Fady had to use a scan card to get into the CAVE, just like in the movies. The room was absolutely dark. Even the ceilings, floor and walls were dark. This is for a better projected picture. Unlike the movies, the room was not stereotypically "pop secret." It was like a photographer's studio with no window, everything dark and lots of computers. There was Windex on the counter, a Power Ranger on the black file cabinet and three "floating" walls in the middle of the room.
      The "floating walls" were suspended by standard harnesses and, in fact, were not floating. These three walls and a fourth on the floor make up the three-dimensional virtual reality CAVE. At approximately 10 X 10 X 9 feet, it was like the holodeck in Star Trek. It was very "high tech." In other words, I was just amazed.
      Fady went on one of the computers and loaded up a program. Unlike the movies, the CAVE allows people to do virtual reality together. As one person holds the wand (the remote control), the other members in the CAVE see the images by his/her point of view. If there are other members in another CAVE, they can hook up access and join the other group. Fady gave me a pair of "lithographic glasses" so we could see things in 3-D, and we heard everything in stereo sound. After pushing the button on the side of the glasses, away we went.
      I controlled the wand and was in the land of simulation. The wand makes you "go" or "stop." It directs the way you go and who you bump into. I went to Crayoland, a world of colors. I accomplished running up one flight of stairs and under a bridge, but I could not make it across another bridge without falling. I kept trying, but it was hard to slow down. After failing at Crayoland, I went to the World Trade Center.
      The World Trade Center was the bomb! I kept crashing into walls, and people blew up as a ran through them. It was great. I know the idea was to get around them, but this was much better. I also flew. As a hang-glider, I never thought I would get a chance to fly anywhere inside. I flew over the heads of the traders, I flew past the stock prices and I flew outside the building. Finally, I landed with my heart racing and my eyes dizzy. I had to sit, because I became nauseated. Fady said he gets that way too. It can get a bit much after an hour.
      Kevin Vilt, a freshman in Engineering joined us in the CAVE. When I asked him about the simulation, he gave a response similar to many who work with the CAVE.
      "I'm not simulating anything. I'm just kind of having fun."
      Other immersive tools are the Immersadeck, a scaled-down version of the CAVE. It is a 4 X 6 foot screen that may be used in offices. And then there is the Infinity Wall. This tool is used for ultra-high resolution for a classroom wall or auditorium. It was developed at the University of Minnesota.

See also: The Virtual Environments Group home page