A tour of the Envision Center

I may be in the basement of Stewart Center on this Thursday afternoon, but I stand in an open grassy field gazing up at the stars. The sky is perfectly clear, and the field stretches for miles.

What I’m actually looking at is a virtual landscape, through a virtual reality headset. This image is essentially a screensaver, a simple loading screen. Nevertheless, presented through this technology, it feels nearly as realistic as the room I am actually standing in.

That room would be STEW B001, home of the Envision Center. You can find it by following an unassuming little sign in the Purdue Memorial Union down a western tunnel. You’ll be met with wide glass windows, allowing you to peek into a sleek modern office where Purdue’s pool hall one resided. In 2004, the recreational venue was converted into this modern computing center for data visualization and virtual reality technology. On January 26, I met with the center’s technical lead George Takahashi to discuss the projects and applications of the center.

George gave me a tour highlighting many pieces of technology used on a daily basis. First was the CAVE, a three-walls-and-a-floor theater, which allows users to interact with programs in a 3D space.  The walls can be swung inwards to enclose the user or kept open to offer an audience a wider field of view. This cave has been used for many projects including the Pharmacy College’s virtual clean room simulation. Here I stood on a beam of scaffolding, staring out across the skeleton of a halfway constructed building. This is a current project of the center; a construction simulator to test and train people on safety practices for scaffolding without ever being at a dangerous elevation.

Takahashi also showed me hardware such as the Virtuix Omni, which is a 360-degree VR treadmill. When used in conjunction with a virtual environment, this allows the user to move through the virtual space unrestrained, while remaining in one place. Beyond expanding a user’s ability to move through a landscape unhindered, the treadmill lowers the chance of a user experiencing the motion sickness that can be caused by a disconnect between the inner ear and the eyes in a VR setting.

Finally, I got to test out the center’s VIVE headset, running a few different programs. As someone who has not had the opportunity to use VR technology in the past, this was a fascinating experience, being able to interact with virtual objects directly. And that was how I came to be standing in a moonlit field, waiting for an app to load.

Now, one might wonder how this center serves the Purdue community. All this technology, as fun as it is to marvel at, should serve a purpose. The Envision Center was originally founded to visualize physical data, giving three-dimensional form to things like orbital dynamics, topographical maps and MRI scans. This serves as a valuable teaching tool for visual learners, and gives researchers new methods for displaying their data. The Envision Center moved on to virtual reality programing as an extension of this goal, working with other organizations on campus to create unique teaching opportunities.
User's point of view in the Green Space game

Two of these programs were the Green Space app and the virtual cleanroom program. Green Space was created for the center’s presentation at the Indiana Black Expo of an app created for Google Cardboard, a low-cost VR headset that turns smartphones into VR devices. It’s a single player game where the player pilots a spacecraft that is cleaning up a debris field orbiting earth. The game received a positive reception, and taught players about Kessler Syndrome (or the process in which space debris breaks up other debris and causes a cascading reaction).

In the pharmaceutical industry, a cleanroom is often used to prepare medication without risk of contamination. Pharmacy students must spend a certain amount of time practicing cleanroom protocol, but cannot always access an actual cleanroom. The Envision Center helped Purdue’s Pharmacy program develop a virtual cleanroom that operates in the Cave theater, allowing pharmacy students to practice as much as they want without having to schedule time in an actual cleanroom.

Beyond using the programs that Envision Center produces, there are additional routes to student involvement with the Envision Center. Casual curiosity about operations can be sated by scheduling a tour, or using the virtual tour available on the ITaP Research Computing website. A student seeking greater involvement can join the Purdue VR Club, which meets in the center weekly to discuss technological breakthroughs and new applications, and to develop software. You can learn more about the club here. Some University courses work in cooperation with the Envision Center, giving students credit for lending their skills to the center.

A student with great passion for this work can apply for a job. Besides Takahashi and Laura Theademan, the center's program manager, the Envision Center is staffed entirely by students, ranging from undergrads to doctoral candidates. There are currently 13 students employed by the center, most of whom come from Computer Graphics Technology, Computer Engineering, and Computer Science. However, the center also values students from Purdue’s art and design programs, as virtual reality serves as a bridge between the artistic and scientific fields.

Writer: Charlotte Herbert, ITaP Communications, cherbert@purdue.edu

Last updated: March 29, 2017

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