Viz profs examine whether seams in
images affect immersive experience


Two visualization professors at Texas A&M will soon test their idea that displays of multiple connected flat panel screens are perceptually equivalent to their far more costly counterparts employing multiple projectors and seamless images.

Ann McNamara is the principal investigator and Fred Parke the co-principal investigator in a 2-year, $266,000 study funded by the National Science Foundation that could fundamentally change the thinking of those in the visual simulation and training field.

There’s a mindset that seamless screens are required for an effectively immersive experience, said Parke.
“For years, people have spent inordinate amounts of money to build systems that blend multiple projectors into a smooth image,” he said. “The systems are very expensive, because you have to have either special electronics or special optics to operate them.”

Such images can also be viewed on much more economical displays consisting of rows of connected flat-panel screens, with one caveat: flat panels are always going to have boundaries, seams, where they come together, he said.

The research will include a series of experiments on both types of systems, examining factors such as test subjects’ performance in a navigation task, their level of spatial understanding and the timeliness of reactions by users in different immersive applications.

McNamara and Parke are in the right place to do the research. Texas A&M’s Halbouty Geosciences Building houses the Immersive Visualization Center, a 25-foot by 8-foot curved screen that uses three rear projectors to provide a seamless display. The IVC provides advanced visualization capabilities to researchers at Texas A&M through its capability to image very large datasets from disciplines such as geophysics, life and physical sciences, engineering, and architecture.

During the study, in addition to showing test subjects the IVC’s seamless images, the researchers will use the IVC’s software to introduce seams into the images measuring .75, 1.25 and 2.50 inches wide.

The Department of Visualization’s Next Generation Immersive System, developed by Parke, will also be part of the study. It uses seven vertically-arranged 46” flat-panel LCD screens with six vertical seams 1.25 inches wide.

“We want to ascertain if the physical presence of seams actually aids performance,” said McNamara. They’ll be able to compare any differences viewers experience with the 1.25-inch virtual seams test subjects encounter on the IVC display.

If their hypothesis is proven correct, researchers and educators in many fields, said McNamara, can proceed with the knowledge that using the far more affordable flat-panel screen system will provide viewers with the same experience as the high-end, seamless displays.

Demonstrating this potential, said McNamara, would significantly drive down the cost of 3-D immersive visualization, paving the way for much broader application areas.

 “Imagine a science teacher showing her students a 3-D immersive model of DNA, allowing them to see and interact with a 3-D visualization on a low-cost immersive display,” she said.

“More and more people will be in a position to develop and evaluate new 3-D user interfaces,” said McNamara. “Lower-cost immersive systems will provide a platform for researchers and developers to investigate new tools for interaction.”

In architecture, she said, collaborative design and presentation of form could result, and new games, both educational and entertaining, could be designed using 3-D immersive tiled environments.

New usability studies could be launched in many realms, including driving and flying simulators.

“In military pilot flight training, extraordinary lengths are taken to have large, seamless, wraparound projection systems that give you as close as possible experience to being out in the real world,” said Parke, adding that commercial pilots, as well as many private pilots, do most of their training in simulators.

“Our research is fundamentally a question of what is needed in the representation of virtual environments, what really determines how effective it can be in terms of a training environment, and do you really have to pay for those expensive, seamless environments or are the faceted, flat panel ones going to be fine at least for some things?” said Parke.

Funding in the grant will also cover tuition costs for two graduate assistants, as well as provide the means to travel to SIGGRAPH and/or other computer graphics and interactive techniques conferences.


- Posted: July 15, 2009 -

- the end -


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