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Virtual Reality Gets Better With Artists' Touch

From Inside UVa
August 26, 1994

Images in virtual reality computer programs are getting more lifelike as artists work with scientists in the U.Va. research lab headed by Randy Pausch, associate professor of computer science.

Sculptors, stage-set designers, filmmakers, former members of circus troupes and other volunteers are advising Mr. Pausch and his team on how to make the computer-generated images that surround the viewer of virtual reality look and move as if they were real.

"Technology can create the computer program and make it work, but unlike what you may have seen in the movie "Lawnmower Man," virtual reality still looks mechanical and blocky," Mr. Pausch said. "What's lacking is the magic of illusion. Artists know how to deceive the eye and the mind to create a reality for the viewer or listener that goes beyond the sights and the sounds."

Mr. Pausch recently spent most of a day with a group of puppeteers to learn how something as simple as a pair of painted wooden eyes clipped to a performer's finger can take on a personality if moved properly while the artist tells a story. "It's the focus," Mr. Pausch explained. "Where the eyes look, you look. If they 'look' at you it's amazing: they seem to be part of a living thing. It's the artist's talent that does it, of course."

It takes hours of work at a computer keyboard to translate one artist's ideas into electronic impulses, but it's a labor of love for Mr. Pausch and his graduate and undergraduate student colleagues in the User Interface Group. They've set up a cot next door to the lab where group members -- who often work, share ideas and debate strategies until midnight -- can sleep over.

Beyond its artistry and electronic wizardry, virtual reality has very practical applications, said Mr. Pausch. It will be used for such as operating complex computer-controlled machinery. One of the researchers is working with scientists at the Health Sciences Center to develop a program that would let a surgeon "reach into" an image of the brain developed from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to search for tumors and other problems.

"Consider which is not only faster and easier to learn, but much more efficient for the average person to use," he said, "a system that makes you keep tapping instructions into a keyboard, or one that puts you inside an image where you can look around, see what needs to be done, and operate a hand control to do it?"

A demonstration program in the Olsson Hall laboratory puts the user inside a large room holding several objects, including the Energizer Bunny, as soon as he or she puts on special goggles. With two hand-held controls the user can maneuver two large hands within the image and pick up, move or even change the size of any object.

One way the Pausch team keeps its costs down is by using ingenuity. For example, expensive gloves wired with sensors are usually employed to transmit hand motion instructions to the computer, but University researchers used another source: a plastic, pistol-grip remote control made for toy race cars. It costs $5 and works just fine. They also fretted about the cost of the customary helmet with built-in goggles to project the images. It turned out an ordinary cloth baseball cap and a pair of goggles work about as well.

Original Article | Local Copy


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