June 21, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Virtual reality in a real lab

SEATTLE--To the people watching me, I'm sure I looked like a really big hamster in a human-size wheel.

I was inside the VirtuSphere, a giant plastic sphere that spins with my movement inside. It was on stationary wheels, allowing me to walk, crawl, run and maybe even do gymnastics (if I could), all while the wheel itself spun in place.

Virtual reality lab

The VirtuSphere, the brainstorm of the scientists at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLab), is, not surprisingly, all about virtual reality. With it, a person wearing a head-mounted display (HMD) inside the sphere could be placed into an entirely virtual environment in which the full range of what they could see was controlled by how they moved their body in the wheel and how they moved their head with the HMD.

Its applications could include 3D combat simulations, training, exercise and just about anything that could take place in a virtual world.

The VirtuSphere is not a new invention, but it's one of the hottest technologies to come out of the HITLab, and an example of something that the researchers there develop, license to industry, and watch as it just maybe goes mainstream.

Unfortunately, the system was broken when I was inside it, so I couldn't get its full "virtual" impact.

Much of the work being done here is related to medical research in the hopes of helping to find cures, or at least therapy, for any number of diseases. In addition, the technology is being used in other areas, like education, architecture and construction.

Click here to Play

Video: A picture book that comes to life
At the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory, enter a virtual world through the pages of your Magic Book.

Click here to Play

Video: Running circles in the VirtuSphere
Also at the HITLab, CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman finds himself running like a rodent in a huge, caged ball.

The lab here was founded in 1989 and soon began a series of close partnerships with some of the biggest names in the technology industry, including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Intel. Today, with dozens of people coming in and out of the lab as each academic quarter begins and ends, the place is seen as one of the leading producers of virtual and so-called augmented-reality technology.

On Tuesday, during the latest stop on my real-life Road Trip around the Pacific Northwest, I visited the HITLab and got to see much of the virtual reality and augmented-reality technology its researchers are working on.

HITLab interim director Suzanne Weghorst also showed me what she called the HiSpace table, an ingenious device that lets people manipulate objects on a table simply by moving their hands around in the air.

Weghorst demonstrated it by challenging me to a game of virtual air hockey, which I'm pleased to report I won. Or maybe I lost. I guess we weren't keeping score.

The table projects an infrared beam from under the table at a large mirror. The reflection then shoots upward where it is captured by a camera held overhead. Any movement above the table itself is then translated into control over objects on the table--which itself is a representation of a Windows desktop.

By moving our hands around, Weghorst and I were able to control "paddles" that directed a "puck."

But this is clearly not precision equipment. We knew this because of its--shall we say--less than pristine condition.

"You get to see the dirty mirror," Weghorst said to someone kneeling under the table and looking at the guts below. "I don't think we've cleaned the mirror in years."

CONTINUED: Making books come alive…
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