University students will soon be able to step inside environments across the globe and use previously inaccessible data due to a $1.67 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
The grant, which is the largest the University has ever received from the NSF, will support the development of a CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment facility that will utilize immersive video and computer generated imagery to virtually transport users into three-dimensional situations.
The principal investigators for the project are Frank Klassner, professor of computing sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Edmond Dougherty, assistant professor in the College of Engineering, and Darren Poley, Interim Director of Falvey Memorial Library The CAVE will be an enclosed room within a room in Falvey Memorial Library where visitors can wear “slightly souped-up three-dimensional movie glasses,” Klassner said.
Klassner described the facility as a “poor man’s holodeck”—the reality simulator from “Star Trek.”
“We can take you wherever we can project,” he said.
The stereoscopic projections can be viewed on three walls and either the ceiling or floor, giving visitors the “feeling of getting immersed in a 3-D environment.”
Klassner said the most compelling feature is that equipment such as data tracking gloves will allow visitors to manipulate and interact with their environments. Visitors can walk around 3-D objects, viewing the projections from all sides, for example.
Klassner said CAVE research is usually CGI-oriented, but that it takes time and resources to create realistic 3-D graphics for the projections. Klassner said the University’s CAVE will support CGI research, but also immersive video development. He described a multiple-lens camera that will allow CAVE users to view projections of actual scenes and objects taken from the real world, instead of computer-generated images.
This transformative feature of the University’s CAVE proposal caught the NSF’s attention, Klassner said.
The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress to promote scientific research across the country, according to nsf.gov. Klassner explained that the NSF offers annual programs in which universities can submit proposals to receive funding for projects.
These projects, known as Major Research Instrumentation, are split into two categories. Acquisition MRIs, which are more common requests, support the purchase of existing equipment.
Development MRIs request to create equipment that does not already exist. If realized, Development MRIs allow transformative research. Klassner said the NSF receives about 900 MRI proposals annually, and that the NSF typically chooses to support about 15 to 20 percent of the projects. Klassner emphasized that CAVE opportunities will in no way be limited to students in a particular major or department. In fact, Poley said the CAVE’s location in the library will allow all colleges, departments and other campus groups to have access to the facility.
“Falvey is academic Switzerland,” Poley said. “It represents the entire university.”
Poley also said the grant is supportive of the direction and vision for the library, which is collaborative and supportive for faculty research. He said he views the library as a diversified space where “imaginative things happen.”
The CAVE is a “facility that will be campus wide in its scope,” Klassner said. “Students of all backgrounds can find a use [for the CAVE].”
For humanities research, for example, “Imagine being able to take your students on a tour of the Parthenon,” Klassner said.
The CAVE could also facilitate the studies of architecture, planetariums, the human body, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and sedimentation at the base of the Grand Canyon, Klassner said.
“Nursing students normally can only experience these things in a clinical setting,” Poley said of CAVE potential for anatomy and medical research. “With the CAVE, they can investigate the human body in non-invasive ways.”
Poley compared the CAVE to widgets on Google kicked up to the “next level of visualization.”
Klassner also mentioned that Villanova has a working relationship with the Vatican, and he said tours of the Sistine Chapel are a possibility for the future, since historical sites such as this are often harmed by actual human visitation anyway.
“Let people see it virtually, but in a very good, photo-realistic way,” he said.
Klassner hosts faculty luncheons to help inform faculty members of the capabilities of the University’s CAVE, which will be able to hold 10 to 15 students at a time. Most facilities around the world only have room for four to six visitors.
The hardware for the CAVE will be constructed and tested in Iowa, then dismantled, shipped to the University, and installed in Old Falvey in April of 2014, Klassner said. The CAVE will be tested over the summer, and he hopes for a formal unveiling and dedication ceremony at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.
After two years of vetting, Klassner said the CAVE will reach a steady state. His hopes for this state include two days a week for which teachers from any discipline can apply to use the CAVE as a classroom. Sunday operations will rotate between student independent research by appointment and public visitations. While CAVE facilities with one projection wall number between hundreds and thousands worldwide, Villanova’s four-paneled CAVE projection system will place the facility in a class of just dozens, Klassner said.
In the area, Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, Drexel, UPenn, Johns Hopkins and Rowen have CAVE facilities, according to Klassner. The new structure will open up collaborations with other Universities through sharing CAVE information, such as CGI.
“Having this kind of facility places Villanova in a somewhat rare category of school,” Klassner said.
Klassner also said CAVE research makes since because the University is “small enough for rich interdisciplinary collaboration.”
He foresees engineers working alongside psychologists on CAVE projects. Poley described the CAVE as an important way for the University to distinguish itself among institutions of higher learning. The facility is one example of how students will benefit from physically coming to the campus, rather than completing their studies online.
While the CAVE is technically a four-year NSF-supported project, Klassner said the University will have the CAVE facility as long as students and faculty can find uses for it.
“And believe me, they will,” he said.