It’s not every day one get’s an invitation from a King (in this case the King of Saudi Arabia) to attend the inauguration of "the world’s newest university" - King Abdulah University of Science and Technology" or KAUST for short. So we jumped at the opportunity to ride (on the King’s nickel) to his oil rich nation, joining several thousand world-class intelligentsia, academics, and administrators (you know the type, University President’s, Chancellors and their spouses) plus the media to a grand opening event. The inauguration is slated for Sept. 23rd the one Saudi national holiday, which comes on the heels of the Muslim holiday, Eid.
Senior Analyst and Editor
For Insight Media, the hook was the Geometric Modeling and Scientific Visualization Center (GM & SVRC) at KAUST with its groundbreaking 100M pixel (in stereo 3D mind you) visual environment system known as "Cornea" plus several derivative vision systems.
The project was developed with the Kings money (lots of it) and international support (including the University of California San Diego) and the California IT2 (Institute for Telecom and Information Technology) and partner companies.
While visiting the KAUST campus, we had a chance to try both the StarCAVE and NexCAVE systems on a recent media tour (look for a complete write-up in the Oct. issue of Large Display Report.) While NexCAVE used tiled 3D flat panels (JVC x-pol type) to create a remarkable visual effect, we found the StarCAVE to be downright AWESOME!
The totally immersive and contained experience is as close as you can get to Star Trek’s Holodeck (only viewers must wear 3D glasses.) One full side of the CAVE opens for entry with five of the six sides (four side-walls plus ceiling and floor) "on" and working when you enter.
Ambient light is dim, but not to the point of seeming noticeably dark in the large room that resembles a studio with control room monitors off to the side. One bank of four racks of the powerful Sony projectors (there’s twenty-four in all) stands about 12 feet from the rear projection screen that also serves as the door to the cave. Once inside with the door shut, the immersive experience complete with audio kicks-in with remarkable visual display and sound acuity.
We were shown a virtual mock-up of a Jordanian archeological dig, first flying in to the site from about 1000 feet overhead. Anyone using the Google Earth software has had a similar experience of zooming down into the details from this overhead view. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Inside the dig, at ground level we began seeing the colored 3D objects (artifacts placed in the exact location at the find) popping out as we moved through the space together. We "walked" down into a pit with rock walls, spiked formations and large crevices, with the artifacts circling around us in full 3D space.
One user (there were five of us in the enclosed cave) wears a head-tracking device that follows movements using sonic wave technology chosen for its effective tracking ability and minimal effect on the CAVE environment, according to Dr. Steve Cutchin, Visualization Lab manager and former UCSD researcher. We were all told to stand near the person wearing the device to get the full effect of the virtual reality.
Remarkably, the floor of the CAVE system was also lit up with four projectors, so looking down you could see deeper crevices, fissures, and cliffs that seemed so realistic, Cutchin told us most folks would not "jump" down into a particularly large gap between the rocks-even though they logically knew they were simply standing on a display screen floor.
As we descended deeper into the dig we could look up and see the surface perhaps 25 feet above us. As we continued to go lower, our voices began to echo adding a whole new dimension (audio) to the experience. The "spatial audio system is developed by UCSD and Berkeley, CA based Meyer Sound. Cutchin said Cornea is the world’s only known research center with this type of audio system.
It’s hard to describe the additive impact of the dimension of "spatial sound" to the immersive visual experience. To emphasize the point, Cutchin, removed the echo bringing up a "flat voice" sound that momentarily "killed" the visualization experience. It was the visual along with sound that somehow allowed suspended belief, convincing the brain that you were actually standing 30 feet below the surface of the earth in the midst of an archeological cornucopia.
This immersive experience should give researchers new clues by placing them inside the event, from where artifacts were located in archeological digs, to the interaction of molecules in chemical compounds, to stellar objects in outer space. We are at the threshold of a new way of learning through cognitive-interaction.
So was it worth the 17 hours flying time, jet lag adjustment and complete change of weather, and diet - you bet! Good job on the Holodek, boys, now if you can just get that Star Trek Transporter to work… Steve Sechrist