Visualizing the Universe: Virtual Reality

By: Jerry Flattum, Performer/Songwriter & Writer/Editor

Virtual reality holds tremendous promise for the future. It’s progressing on numerous fronts with movies like the remake of TRON, the entire Matrix series, Minority Report, and Avatar having given us a glimpse of what could be, scientists and technicians both public and private are racing to make virtual indistinguishable from reality to your five senses.

The Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Chicago is one of the best known virtual reality development institutes in the world. Inventor of the CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment), and its second iteration, CAVE2.

Interesting intro to EVL@UIC

Virtual reality, simply put, is a three dimensional, computer generated simulation in which one can navigate around, interact with, and so become immersed in another environment.

Douglas Engelbart, an electrical engineer and former naval radar technician, is credited with the first exploration into virtual reality. He viewed computers as more than glorified adding machines. It was the 1950s, and TVs had barely turned color. His goal was to connect the computer to a screen.

By the early 1960s, communications technology intersecting with computing and graphics was well underway. Vacuum tubes turned into transistors. Pinball machines were being replaced by video games.

Scientific visualization moved from bar charts, mathematical diagrams and line drawings to dynamic images, using computer graphics. Computerized scientific visualization enabled scientists to assimilate huge amounts of data and increase understanding of complex processes like DNA sequences, molecular models, brain maps, fluid flows, and celestial events. A goal of scientific visualization is to capture the dynamic qualities of a wide range of systems and processes in images, but computer graphics and animation was not interactive. Animation, despite moving pictures, was static because once created, it couldn’t be altered. Interactivity became the primary driver in the development of Virtual Reality.

By the end of the 1980s, super computers and high-resolution graphic workstations were paving the way towards a more interactive means of visualization. As computer technology developed, MIT and other high tech research centers began exploring Human Computer Interaction (HCI), which is still a major area of research, now combined with artificial intelligence.

The mouse seemed clumsy, and such devices as light pens and touch screens were explored as alternatives. Eventually CAD–computer-aided design–programs emerged with the ability of designers to model and simulate the inner workings of vehicles, create blueprints for city development, and experiment with computerized blueprints for a wide range of industrial products.

Flight simulators were the predecessors to computerized programs and models and might be considered the first virtual reality -like environments. The early flight simulators consisted of mock cockpits built on motion platforms that pitched and rolled. A limitation was they lacked visual feedback. This changed when video displays were coupled with model cockpits.

In 1979, the military began experimenting with head-mounted displays. By the early 1980s, better software, hardware, and motion-control platforms enabled pilots to navigate through highly detailed virtual worlds.

US Army’s New Virtual Simulation Training System

A natural consumer of computer graphics was the entertainment industry, which, like the military and industry, was the source of many valuable spin-offs in virtual reality. By the 1970s, some of Hollywood’s most dazzling special effects were computer-generated. Plus, the video game business boomed.

One direct spin-off of entertainment’s venture into computer graphics was the dataglove, a computer interface device that detects hand movements. It was invented to produce music by linking hand gestures to a music synthesizer. NASA was one of the first customers for the new device. The biggest consumer of the dataglove was the Mattel company, which adapted it into the PowerGlove, and used it in video games for kids. The glove is no longer sold.

Helmet-mounted displays and power gloves combined with 3D graphics and sounds hinted at the potential for experiencing totally immersive environments. There were practical applications as well. Astronauts, wearing goggles and gloves, could manipulate robotic rovers on the surface of Mars. Of course, some people might not consider a person on Mars as a practical endeavor. But at least the astronaut could explore dangerous terrain without risk of getting hurt.


The virtual reality laboratory at the Johnson Space Center is helping astronauts Steve Bowen and Al Drew train for two spacewalks they conducted in 2011. Watch the first 2 minutes to get the gist.

Virtual Reality is not just a technological marvel easily engaged like sitting in a movie theater or in front of a TV. Human factors are crucial to VR. Age, gender, health and fitness, peripheral vision, and posture come into play. Everyone perceives reality differently, and it’s the same for VR. Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is a major area of research.

The concept of a room with graphics projected from behind the walls was invented at the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle in 1992. The images on the walls were in stereo to give a depth cue. The main advantage over ordinary graphics systems is that the users are surrounded by the projected images, which means that the images are in the users’ main field of vision. This environment was dubbed the “CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment).” In 2012 the dramatically improved environment CAVE2 was launched.

CAVE2 is the world’s first near-seamless flat-panel-based, surround-screen immersive system. Unique to CAVE2 is that it will enable users to simultaneously view both 2D and 3D information, providing more flexibility for mixed media applications. CAVE2 is a cylindrical system 24 feet in diameter and 8 feet tall, and consists of 72 near-seamless, off-axisoptimized passive stereo LCD panels, creating an approximately 320 degree panoramic environment for displaying information at 37 Megapixels (in stereoscopic 3D)

The original CAVE was designed from the beginning to be a useful tool for scientific visualization. The CAVE2 can be coupled to remote data sources, supercomputers and scientific instruments via dedicated, super high-speed fiber networks. Various CAVE-like environments exist all over the world today. Projection on all 72 surfaces of its room allows users to turn around and look in all directions. Thus, their perception and experience are never limited, which is necessary for full immersion.

Any quick review of the history of optics, photography, computer graphics, media, broadcasting and even sci-fi, is enough to believe virtual reality will become as commonplace as the TV and movies. There are far too many practical applications, such as in surgery, flight simulation, space exploration, chemical engineering and underwater exploration.

And these are just the immediate applications assuming we only receive virtual reality data via our external senses. Once the information is transmitted via electrical impulses directly to the brain, not only will virtual be indistinguishable from reality, it will be a mere option to stop there. We’ll be able to stimulate the brain in ways nature never could, producing never before experienced sensations or even entirely new senses. New emotions, ranges, and combinations of the visceral and ethereal.

Maybe it will be Hollywood that stops speculating and starts experimenting. The thought of being chased by Freddy Kruger is one thing, but to actually be chased by Freddy Kruger is utterly terrifying. No more jumping out of seats when the face of a giant shark snaps its teeth as us. Now we can really know what it’s like to be chased by cops speeding down a thruway at 100 mph. We can feel and smell pineapples on a tropical beach. We can catch bad guys, defeat aliens in a starship battle, and have conversations with Presidents in our bare feet. We can simulate what it would feel like to soar across the galaxy as a stream of subatomic particles.

With virtual reality, the only limit is the imagination.