College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Iowa State University’s virtual reality lab greets visionary who set stage for cutting-edge research

Written by Marco Santana
Appeared originally in the Des Moines Register.

When students and visitors walk into Iowa State University’s Howe Hall, they are greeted with a towering, almost futuristic-looking fixture.

Inside, some of the world’s most sophisticated virtual reality software is on the cutting edge of research projects for high-profile customers like the U.S. Department of Defense and mega-companies like Chicago-based Boeing and Iowa’s own Deere & Co.

Thanks to the work done at ISU’s Virtual Reality Applications Center, or VRAC, Deere has found more efficient ways to train its employees. Boeing now knows that the huge apparatus can properly display a prototype in the design stages if the company brings it to Ames. And the technology deployed at the 22-year-old VRAC could soon allow doctors everywhere to take a virtual tour of the insides of patients’ CT scans.

Director James Oliver says those possibilities help attract talented students, professors and researchers to the school and to the research program.

“It’s a magnet for real creative, smart people, and we nurture those people and help them develop and grow,” he said.

In 1991, now-Arizona State University President Mike Crow installed Jim Bender as VRAC’s first director. Crow had been head of the school’s Iowa Center for Manufacturing Technologies and oversaw a transition into virtual reality research at the school.

In fact, Oliver said the nascent research field first came onto the school’s radar when Crow handed Bender a book about virtual reality.

“Mike has vision. He always has had tremendous vision,” Oliver said. “He was sort of a legend around here.”

Last week, Crow was in town to receive an alumni award and returned to tour the latest iteration of his vision, a lab that included the virtual reality tower, dubbed the C6.

“It’s visualizations at the highest level,” Crow said after taking a tour of a CT scan from within and standing on the deck of a virtual aircraft carrier. “We have new technology that solves problems. This is how you do it.”

As he stood in the virtual reality chamber, Crow seemed to enjoy himself. To no one in particular, Crow reacted to the CT scan, saying, “This is pretty cool.” When an F-18 flew off after piloting toward him, he quipped, “That landing gear would have hurt.”

Originally, the center received a large backing from the university and a number of large corporations, including Boeing and Deere. The C6 opened in 2000. Oliver said that by the time he took over as director in 2004, the C6 was already getting a bit old.

A $10 million earmark from the state in 2005 helped the research facility pay for a $5 million upgrade to the C6, add $1 million in renovations to Howe Hall’s auditorium and attract additional researchers.

Although Oliver acknowledges that the facility faces funding challenges similar to those at other schools, he said the productivity is as high as ever. About 40 faculty members have active research projects, which are funded privately and help pay for about 300 student positions.

The C6 can be equipped to allow people to travel through either very tiny places like a human aorta or monstrous locations like an endless cavern. But the space within the machine is pretty unspectacular. Visitors either take their shoes off or don cloth covers on their feet to enter a 10-foot-by-10-foot room.

Virtual reality glasses give the sensation of being within the aorta or on an aircraft carrier as the software is directed by either a modified video game controller or an iPod, depending on the program. Oliver said the display is the highest resolution available.

Crow said after his visit that the lab had come a long way.

“It’s much more sophisticated,” he said. “It’s not just visualizations anymore, it’s the reality. You can make a cartoon and pretend it’s reality. But this is not pretend. This is it.”

“Having him come in and see this was really satisfying,” Oliver said. “I hope he’s proud to see what his initial idea and vision came to.”