Sunday, September 21, 2008

UCSD's StarCAVE Is a Real 3D Super-High-Def Danger Room [Virtual Reality]


UC at San Diego has the closest thing to an X-Men-style Danger Room in its new StarCAVE, a small room that entirely surrounds you, hurtling 68 million pixels at your eyeballs at near-perfect resolution. Pop on polarized glasses and the whole thing goes 3D. Grasping a wireless "wand," you can walk through tall buildings, fly over cities, pick apart tiny cell structures or embrace entire galaxies. All the while pretending to do actual academic research, of course. Here's how to build your own for under $1 million:

The room—the third and by far best generation of the "Cave Automated Virtual Environment" pioneered in Chicago in the early 1990s—is pentagon shaped. Each wall has three panels, the top and bottom of which are angled 15 degrees inward for an immersive (and slightly Roddenberry-esque) experience. Each individual panel gets two of its own 2K-resolution (2048 x 1536) projectors, providing a discrete experience for each eye when viewing in 3D. Even the floor gets a pair of projectors. The effect is a better-than-HD view—the equivalent of 20/40 vision—anywhere you turn.

Previous generations of VR CAVE used those powered shutter glasses for 3D; the StarCAVE is the first to let you use the basic lightweight polarized glasses to add that more enjoyable, natural-feeling third dimension.

Lest you were worried about an appropriately complementary sound system, fear not. There are three five-speaker arrays hidden behind the panels for all kinds of surround-sound configurations, and there's a subwoofer built into the floor, too.

As you may have guessed, each panel gets its own serious processing muscle: a quad-core Linux-based PC with dual Nvidia GPUs and gigabit ethernet (in some cases 10-gigabit). Besides the higher resolution, it's the networking that makes this the most pow! erful VR room in existence—it ain't real unless you can tie it all together.

The room was designed to be earthquake proof, but also wheel-chair accessible. (Hear that, Dr. Hawking?) The entrance itself is hidden: One of the walls, including six projectors and three computers, rolls aside so that users can get in and out. As I mentioned, the crazy thing is that the StarCAVE cost less than $1 million to build. I am assuming that doesn't include the grad-student slave labor. (Don't worry, kids, if this kind of thing takes off, you'll all be rich soon enough.)

I can guess what you, dear Gizmodo reader, would use the StarCAVE for (Halo? Spore? WoW? Tiger Woods Golf?) but what the UCSD people are up to is a tad more educational. As you can see in the gallery (complete with UCSD's helpful captions), applications for visual research in biology, archaeology, structural engineering and architecture are already underway at the StarCAVE. Our hope is to pop by and burn some of this amazingness into our retinas, maybe plug in something a little less edutaining and more entertaining while we're at it. Regardless, if you currently go to UCSD, you are a lucky bastard.

Note: Photos taken in 2D mode so that that they didn't look like double-vision. Obviously, normal 3D view would look a tad different. [UCSD; Also via]