A member of Living Environments Laboratory helps create a 3D, 360-degree visualization of a kitchen as part of the vizHOME project, which studies the health impacts of living spaces.
In February 2014, staff from UW-Madison’s Living Environments Laboratory arrived at a Mazomanie residence where a murder had recently been committed.
Using a lidar scanner (which uses a laser beam to map physical features at high resolution), they preserved the crime scene by creating a 3D, 360-degree visualization of the home’s interior.
Ross Tredinnick, a systems programmer with the lab, never imagined he would preserve evidence of a crime in a virtual environment. “Two years ago this would’ve been infeasible,” he says.
Located at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the Living Environments Laboratory was established in 2010 to visually recreate environments, real or imagined, with an emphasis on improving the design of home healthcare technologies.
The concept of virtual reality, which dates to the 1940s, became mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s, popularized by films like 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. But it never moved beyond the stuff of science fiction — until now.
Dr. Kevin Ponto, an assistant professor of design studies at both the lab and the university’s School of Human Ecology, says the technology has finally caught up to the ’80s-era fantasy that virtual reality would be a part of everyday life.
Researchers nationwide are now breathing new life into old ideas. A first generation of affordable head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift have sparked the present period of rapid innovation to improve the underlying technology — processors and graphics cards — as well as its price points.
Tredinnick says a pre-Oculus head-mounted display he tested in 2012 sold for $12,000. And, he adds, “It was horrible.”
The lab’s centerpiece is the $2.5 million cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE), a six-sided room where high-resolution images captured by the lidar scanner are projected on all sides, replicated at scale and with perspective preserved to within a millimeter.
CAVE occupants — who wear 3D glasses to complete the effect — are left unconstrained by space and, in some cases, even gravity. Here, you can stand among the microscopic and intergalactic alike.
“The CAVE puts you inside of a space that can transport you anywhere visually,” says UW-Madison engineering professor Rob Radwin.
The CAVE, which went online in 2011, has revealed some unexpected benefits. “When we first built the lab, I thought the CAVE was going to be the big deal,” says lab theme leader Patricia Brennan. “But it is just an inspiration for a whole host of other visualization and high-performance visualization activities.”
Originally built to research health and home issues, the lab has attracted researchers from 27 disciplines as well as the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, which the lab worked with to replicate the Mazomanie murder scene.
Brennan, who teaches nursing and engineering, has spearheaded the vizHOME project, which explores the relationship between people’s living spaces and their health. Funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality, Brennan and her team have scanned the interior of 20 residences.
“Home visualizations allow us to see how space affects the way people take care of themselves,” she says, noting the long-term benefits for post-care recovery. “Where is the best place to do a dressing change? Where is the safest place to exercise, to put the bed?”
She believes that 3D captures of patients’ dwellings will become a standard consideration in discharge planning, particularly for patients with complex health problems. “I never thought I’d see that in my career.”
Radwin, on the other hand, is more interested in virtual objects than spaces and how people interact with those. “I’ve looked for ways for people to have the illusion that they’re exerting force on these objects,” he says.
After measuring the force exerted by volunteers’ muscles when lifting an actual dumbbell, Radwin then inputs the electric signatures into a computer to help guide the movement of a virtual dumb bell.
“We ask [volunteers] to tense up their muscles so they have electrical activity as a computer manipulates the object,” he says. “As you contract, the dumbbell goes up.”
Aside from the obvious potential for those in physical therapeutics, Radwin sees potential for creating a training tool for emergency personnel that provides the physical and visual experience of lifting a wounded person.
The lab also takes on more light-hearted projects. Earlier this year Ponto and Tredinnick captured 3D exterior and interior visualizations of Taliesin in Spring Green and the Stave Church, a log church built in Mount Horeb over 120 years ago and shipped to Norway in 2014.
The staff has taken these visualizations on the road, letting people wear the Oculus Rift and take a virtual tour of Taliesin and the church.
Brennan says before long the technology will allow two people in different locations to experience virtual environments together. With the new technology also comes the potential for ethical abuses — scenarios that sci-fi fans are familiar with.
A conference proposed to be held on campus next June would begin to develop guidelines around the ethics of investigational and interventional use of virtual reality.
Says Brennan: “We want to get some guidelines to help people as the technology continues to move forward.”