Inside the CalIT2 building at the University of California, San Diego is located perhaps one of the coolest pieces of modern day technology you’ll find anywhere. Its name sounds like something out of a sci-fi flick but there’s definitely nothing fictional about it. It’s called the StarCAVE and it’s one of the biggest and most realistic 3rd generation virtual reality environments in the world.
It’s composed of a five side room rendering 3D images and stereo sound projected on 360-degree screens. The room operates at a combined resolution of over 68 million pixels, 34 million per eye, distributed over 15 rear projected walls and two down projected floor screens. Each side of the pentagon like shaped room has 3 stacked screens with both the bottom and top screens tilted inwards by 15 degrees to increase the feeling of actually being there. This design is exceptionally unique because it significantly reduces the ghosting effects that plagued its previous VR predecessors. The new design also offers the user the advantage of having to wear only lightweight polarized sun glasses as opposed to much heavier and bulkier battery powered shutter glasses. The viewer is able to freely navigate through these incredibly engrossing virtual environments through the use of just a wand and multi-camera wireless tracking system.
A quick peak under the hood let’s us see just what exactly makes this baby tick:
It uses 34 nVIDIA chips along with 34 high definition projectors that produce vivid left and right eye visuals and high resolution 3D imagery. Each of these projectors is powered by a quad core computer running on a Linux platform with dual graphics processors and dual gigabit Ethernet NIC cards capable of 10GigE networking. This OptIPuter network connects to more than 20 OptIPortals that are up and running around the world. OptiPortals, or visual collaboration portals, are visualization clusters that can be deployed on a variety of hardware platforms. They can be used for high end data presentations or video conferencing, for example. Adding to the VR effects is the 5.1 digital audio surround sound system which utilizes the latest in wave field synthesis.
This advanced technology allows for some amazing graphics and can be used to produce high quality scientific models and animations. This particular technology appeals mostly to scientist and researchers because it allows them to venture and explore new worlds while at the same time coming up with scientific discoveries and advancements in a variety of disciplines. This incredibly immersive environment offers a vessel in which they can explore in great detail something as tiny as a single strand of DNA or something as expansive and gigantic as an unexplored piece of land. It’s already being used as a high tech excavation tool for very sophisticated archaeological expeditions. Among them, a virtual reconstruction of a pre-biblical copper production site in Jordan and the virtual excavation of the tomb of Genghis Khan in Northeastern Mongolia.
There’s no doubt that there are many cool uses for this fascinating piece of technology. Many other applications are all ready being written for it. Like an app that displays computer aided design models of parts of bridges and buildings as well as virtual replicas of such sites. There are already talks of upgrades in place as well. The team at Calit2 would like to make certain upgrades to the system in an effort to provide even greater realism. They hope to increase the visual acuteness from its current 20/40 ratio to a perfect 20/20 visual state by upgrading the system’s 34 projectors from 2K pixel resolution to 4K. This would require an additional 15 PCs and 30 GPUs, which by today’s prices would run approximately a cool $3 Million. As it stands now, the cost it took to build this impressive tool stands at just under $1 Million.
After getting a first hand opportunity to experience the “CAVE” for myself, I can honestly say that this is indeed a very cool piece of technology. It felt like one of those 3-D rides at an amusement park but the main difference being that you’re the actual ride and you’re not just staring at a screen. It really does
make you feel like you’re part of these virtual 3-D environments. A truly immersive experience but one that I wouldn’t recommend too much for someone who’s prone to motion sickness as it can feel a bit overwhelming at times. The graphics and animations look incredibly sharp and clear. The dimensions in which objects are displayed are astounding.
Among the different environments that I was able to see were a piece by piece re-creation of the Mars rover pictures. It felt like I was really standing there on the red planet itself. I was also shown the aforementioned 3-D modeling app of a new bay bridge in San Francisco. And lastly, I got to navigate through a re-creation of Atkinson Hall which is the area of CalIT2 in which StarCAVE is housed, complete with a virtual re-creation of StarCAVE itself. So I ended up where I started from in the real world only this time in the virtual world. As you can imagine, seeing the lines of reality and virtual reality blurred was particularly trippy!
To many people StarCAVE can bring to mind such sci-fi comparisons as the X-men’s Danger Room or Star Trek’s Holodeck but to me it brought back memories of that VR data storage system device from the movie Disclosure. I felt just like Michael Douglas’s character Tom when navigating through this incredibly interactive and immersive world. The feeling of flying through the air without having to move a single muscle is something you definitely have to experience for yourself. All in all a pretty impressive tool that will hopefully help serve a good cause.
Checkout this awesome video from inside the StarCAVE