Texas A&M University architecture professor Frederic Parke wants to take computer users places they’ve never been before — without leaving campus.
Parke, coordinator of the College of Architecture’s graduate visualization program, is developing immersive visualization systems that use off-the-shelf hardware and open-source Linux-based software.
While conventional visualization uses workstation displays to provide “windows” into virtual environments, immersive visualization provides the sense of being within — of experiencing a virtual environment. In spatially immersive systems, the viewer is surrounded by projected images in a presentation space similar to a small room.
“These systems combine a unique physical display surface with specialized software to enable immersion within a visual representation of any environment of interest,” Parke says.
Grants fund several prototypes
Parke began his research with a small seed-money grant from the College of Architecture. This conceptual study lead to a Telecommunications and Informatics Task Force (TITF) Grant funded through the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research to develop several prototype implementations. Success with these prototypes brought a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, under its program for major infrastructure research, to develop two operational systems.
Parke’s research centers on developing high quality, lower cost spatial immersive display systems using high performance, relatively inexpensive, off-the-shelf commodity components. Like all immersive systems, his include three major elements: graphic computers, display surfaces and viewer tracking and interaction elements. Unlike most, however, his include high-performance commodity graphics processors in each computer node, thus distributing the visual computing chores throughout the system.
Parke’s systems are based on image displays formed from a number of planar polygon surfaces. These surfaces are based on the deltoidal icositetrahedron, a 24-sided figure with equal-sized faces that look somewhat like portions of very large angular soccer balls. He has developed a series of three operational prototypes, one of which is ready for use by the entire university community.
Prototypes used for designing university facilities, visualizing historic sites
These prototypes have already been put to practical use in helping to design the College of Architecture’s “Architecture Ranch,” a workshop and outdoor space built on16 acres at Texas A&M’s Riverside Campus on Highway 47 and used by the college to develop innovative projects, programs and activities.
“During an all-day meeting, several design teams created a range of development concepts for the ranch,” Parke says. “Design sketches, combined with aerial photographs and survey data, were used as the basis for two three-dimensional virtual site models, one of the as-is undeveloped site and the other of the site as envisioned by one design team. Using the immersive system, a person can interactively move through either the developed or the undeveloped site and experience it from any location and point of view.
“We are working on additional system applications, including healthcare facilities design, construction planning visualization and the visualization of inaccessible historic sites, showing both their past and current configurations.”
Parke, along with graduate student Kevin Singleton, is working with the college’s Center for Heritage Conservation to develop a 3-D representation of a Native American historical cliff dwelling in Arizona.
“Professors David Woodcock and Bob Warden of the center have provided high-quality drawings, survey data and photographs of the site, known as Montezuma Castle A,” Parke says. “We hope to be able to provide them with a realistic immersive visualization. This project may be of interest to other parks departments, since many such sites have been closed to the general public. People may again be able to explore these places via virtual reality.”
Parke is also working with nautical archeology Professor Filipe Castro and graduate student Audrey Wells to develop similar immersive visualizations of a 17th century shipwreck off the coast of Portugal.
Falling costs for such immersive systems may facilitate more widespread adoption
“High costs and limited access have inhibited the integration of immersive visualization into routine workflow,” Parke says. “But now that cost barriers are falling, we need to develop much better software support and workflow integration to promote more widespread adoption of what we hope will be more robust and more accessible systems.”
He envisions eventually developing modular components that can be used to create immersive systems by literally bolting together mass-produced units, each containing the needed structural frames, computers and screens.
“Specific challenges of immersive systems include the need for large spaces, usually with high ceilings to accommodate the display surfaces and placement of projectors,” he notes. “Fully immersive systems usually require suspension of the system above the actual floor so that projections can reach lower display surfaces.”
In addition to extending immersive visualization technology, Parke’s research goals concern the effectiveness of the immersive experiences provided by these systems.
“Do these systems empower the participant by affording new insights and deeper understandings, as well as generally facilitating system performance?” Parke asks. “We intend to measure the cognitive, emotional and physiological processes that occur during and after experiences in immersive environments.
“Our current funding from NSF has two main objectives — to implement two full scale operational immersive visualization systems for use by the university community and to make the results of our development activities broadly available so that others can easily replicate these systems and make use of the software we develop.” One goal is to provide a design template for effective, lower cost immersive visualization systems that others can use as the basis for implementing their own systems.
The project Web site can be accessed at http://www-viz.tamu.edu/research/immersive.