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Brown University unveils 3D virtual-reality room

PROVIDENCE — In a darkened room, a group of people wearing 3-D glasses clustered around someone using a wand to draw a shape, a bit klutzily, in midair. As the virtual object grew, the spectators instinctively leaned back to get out of its way.

It was the first day of public life for the Yurt, Brown University’s immersive 3-D virtual-reality room. The $2.5 million facility, unveiled last month, is one of the most advanced of its kind in New England. And at a moment when virtual reality is poised for takeoff in the form of much cheaper home entertainment systems, its creators see the Yurt as a key site for exploration of not just math, geology, biology, and visual art, but also the potential of the medium itself.

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Compared with other such rooms, the Yurt is technologically “the greatest in all kinds of ways,” said University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill computer science professor Henry Fuchs. Named for its shape and as an acronym for YURT Ultimate Reality Theatre, it features a domed ceiling, curved walls, and a thick clear acrylic floor lined with screens. Through these surfaces come approximately 100 million pixels of bright, high-resolution 3-D computer graphics, beamed by 69 stereo projectors powered by a cluster of computers.

During a demonstration, as people took turns controlling the system with a wand and a special pair of 3-D glasses that track head movements, the Yurt team led a rapt crowd on what felt like a hurtle through the whole university’s curriculum.

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One minute, the visual field filled with spiraling images of mathematical objects; the next, viewers found themselves navigating the surface of the moon. They dodged incoming projectiles in a student-written video game, absorbed the animated language of another student’s 3-D poetry, and zoomed in on the Garibaldi panorama, a fragile 260-foot-long scroll painting from 1860 that Brown recently had scanned. (Weirdly, with the glasses on, you could seemingly pop your head through it. On the other side: darkness.)

It’s a dazzling display, with top-notch power and seamlessness for a type of system generically known as a Cave (for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). It builds on an earlier, less advanced Cave at Brown, from 1998.

But what few might have imagined six years ago, when computer science professor David Laidlaw and his team began the Yurt’s design, was that in 2015 virtual reality would have rocketed from a marginal, high-cost novelty to tech’s next big thing. By next year, head-mounted display devices, in which graphics are beamed into a user’s headset, are slated to hit the home market in earnest. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated is Oculus Rift, whose parent company was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion last year; Sony, Microsoft, and HTC are also developing systems.

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Caves and head-mounted displays have contrasting advantages: “Which is better, film or video? They’re just different,” Laidlaw said. Fuchs predicts head-mounted systems, which can block out surroundings, will sell millions of units — perhaps only for video games, but probably giving rise to “a whole ecosystem” of applications.

By contrast, Cave systems let viewers wearing lightweight 3-D glasses move freely, see their own bodies, and interact — an ideal setup for research, teaching, and industry. The economic model is different, too. Rather than being based on anticipated mass retail sales, the funding for the Yurt was through a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and $500,000 from Brown. “The amount of money that is spent on Caves is unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable!” Fuchs said.

The Yurt launched with a symposium on the theme of “Visualization and Creativity in Immersive 3-D Environments,” which attracted a range of interested people. Robert Coover, the novelist and Brown professor emeritus who is considered a pioneer of literature written for digital platforms, stopped by for a demo. “The visuals are terrific,” he said.

Laidlaw, who has taught at Brown since 1998, declared himself “pretty darn happy with the whole thing.” Building a custom virtual-reality room inside a computer science building, he said, had been an education in international shipping and receiving, rigging, chain hoists, structural steel, plastic, optics, and fishing tackle — “and that’s just the physical part.”

Asked when finishing touches, including doors to complete the room’s perimeter, are scheduled for completion, he said, deadpan, “2011.”

Virtual-reality devices’ ultimate functions remain unknown: “The big uncertainty is, what are people going to use them for?” Fuchs said. Laidlaw agreed. “From a mass-market, cultural perspective, I think that there will be many more applications of VR discovered and refined over the next decade,” he wrote via e-mail, adding, “The Yurt is a place where we can experiment with what those future uses might be.”

Laidlaw’s short-term goals for the Yurt are clear, however: “I want it to accelerate science,” he said. Leaders from NASA have come by to talk to Brown professor Jim Head, who trains astronauts in geology in the Cave, about deploying the Yurt for space-mission planning. The old Cave, now in an arts building, has been used for modeling the aerodynamics of bat flight and visualizing data from brain MRIs.

Literary arts professor John Cayley, a symposium organizer who teaches creative writing for the Cave, said he thought science applications would get priority. But with two compatible virtual-reality systems on campus, he said, if artists could develop work in the old Cave “and then in select instances move it into the Yurt, it’s a really sweet situation to be in, and probably more or less unique institutionally.”

Wearing 3D glasses, Brown University Computer Science Professor David Laidlaw poses for a portrait inside the new Yurt virtual reality space on the university's campus in Providence, Rhode Island, Thursday, May 28th, 2015. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)

Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

Brown University Computer Science Professor David Laidlaw inside the new Yurt virtual reality space on the university’s campus in Providence.

Cayley, in the original Cave that morning, had been running his own demo of pieces by students. In these works, animated language appeared to plummet into a hole beneath your feet, form stairs stretching into the distance, or suddenly surge through you.

It was a taste of what can happen when a new medium — like print or radio, once — comes along to inspire forms that someday may be as familiar as a book or a pop song. “If you’re making art,” Cayley said, “and the medium becomes the Cave, then the possibility of making something absolutely original is presented to you.” At the Yurt, those experiments have just begun to unfold.

Amanda Katz can be reached at amkatz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @katzish.
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