Scientists at the University of Chicago are creating a Star-Trek-like holodeck to push science fiction closer to science fact. The new wraparound 3D environment allows researchers to stroll through the human brain, hover over the surface of Mars or travel through a virtual hurricane.
72 stereoscopic liquid crystal display panels project anything a scientist can imagine in three dimensions on an eight-foot screen that encircles the researcher 320 degrees.
Despite it’s high “cool” factor, its remarkable resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s 1950s sci-fi rumination of a child’s nursery and the Star Trek holodeck, this virtual playground is going to do some serious science.
The University of Illinois computer scientist says, “CAVEs are essentially fantastic lenses for bringing data into focus.” He anticipates rolling out CAVEs across the country to look at large-scale data and help scientists understand what their research means.Leigh says this type of virtual world could also be a training ground for doctors that could also improve patient care. He thinks drug companies could use it to model the way new drugs bind to proteins in the human body and he says car designers could even virtually drive their new models.
Brain surgeon Ali Alaraj tells the Associated Press about the first time he saw the brain using the CAVE2. He says, “You can walk between the blood vessels. You can look at the arteries below. You can look at the arteries from the side…that was science fiction to me.”
But room-sized CAVE2s aren’t cheap. In fact, the newest version which was revealed to the world at Chicago Ideas Week in October cost about $1 million. That’s half the price of the first version with was over $2 million, according to the National Science Foundation, which put up much of the funding for the project along with the Department of Energy.
The CAVE2 immerses people into worlds too large, too small, too dangerous, too remote, or too complex to be viewed otherwise.
Andreas Linninger says, “We were flabbergasted.”
The University of Illinois at Chicago neurosurgeon used the CAVE2 to solve a problem with his computer model that prevented his team from finding a brain aneurysm in a patient.
For years, Linninger and and other neurosurgeons have painstakingly used laptop and desktop computers to evaluate patient-specific images, which had been interpreted by computer algorithms to represent the brain and its blood flow in 3D. They pieced together arteries, veins and micro-vessels to create three-dimensional, full-brain models that physiologically mirrored the brains of individual patients, including a particular patient whose cerebrovascular system they were trying to accurately model.
But it wasn’t until spending just a few minutes inside the CAVE2 that the team recognized they had inaccurately connected some arteries which confounded the whole model.
He says, “We had been looking at computer models of a particular patient’s brain for several months but within five minutes of putting the model into the CAVE2, the chief endovascologist said we had connected certain arteries in a way that was inconsistent with anatomy.”
The neurosurgeons were limited by the image spatial resolution of today’s best computers and they just couldn’t see the problem. So with all their data loaded into the virtual environment they could get inside the brain, walk around and see what wasn’t quite right.
Leigh says, “Today, almost all science is e-science so that much of the data scientists investigate is collected, stored and analyzed digitally.” That makes it easy to be fed into systems like CAVE2.And the CAVE2 can handle the deluge of data that a lot of science creates. Scientists can create simulations based on their data to explore distant planets, the center of violent storms or even a new building that isn’t yet constructed.
Leigh says, “Scientific phenomena are observed with new types of digital instruments, including sensors and robotic autonomous exploration vehicles capable of collecting data at ever-increasing resolutions. Natural phenomena from global weather systems to chemical reactions at the atomic level, for instance, may now be simulated inside supercomputers, generating massive amounts of data.”
Looking at giant data sets as a series of numbers, coordinates, temperatures or other points of inquiry does little to tell the story of what’s being observed. But to create a 3D model and then input that into a system that allows full interaction suddenly opens doors to exploring the world in a new and exciting way. This type of technology allows scientists to immerse themselves in their work, solve big problems and get a fresh perspective on the research.