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UMBC professors think virtual reality can change research

And the university is building an immersive VR environment to find out.

A visualization wall at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Lab. UMBC officials say their project will be similar to this. (Photo courtesy of Planar)

When it comes to virtual reality, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is going for full immersion.
Armed with funding from the National Science Foundation, the university is set to build a virtual reality “environment” that’s designed to help researchers from different fields. It’s called PI2.
In the 15-by-20-foot room, stepping into virtual reality won’t necessarily require goggles.
Nearly 180 degrees of LCD screens will be positioned in the curved space, allowing people to view the experience in the open. Goggles may be added to layer other elements on top of what’s on the screens for a “stereo” view, said UMBC Director of Research Karl Steiner. Viewers will be able to see areas within six degrees of motion.
“It’s not quite the Holodeck from Star Trek, because you can’t walk everywhere,” he said.
Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Professor Jian Chen was responsible for bringing the idea to Steiner. Chen is the lead of a group of five professors that ended up receiving the $360,000 grant, which is known as a Major Research Infrastructure award. As a condition of the grant, UMBC has to make a contribution to cover the remainder of the $500,000 cost.
In a research context, the professors believe one big use of virtual reality is to visualize data. The spreadsheets and other visualizations that are currently in use could get an even bigger upgrade, and therefore more easily relatable to others outside a specific field, Steiner said.
“You bring it into an environment where it becomes a visual environment, it almost becomes a translator across disciplines,” Steiner said.
It could also allow researchers to study environments too dangerous for humans. And, of course there’s UMBC’s active video game development community. And, in the future, the professors hope it can integrate with advances in wearables, sensors and other technologies.

“I don’t think any of our faculty quite know yet how deep this can go,” Steiner said.
Companies: University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

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