June 21, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Virtual reality in a real lab

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Perhaps one of the coolest pieces of technology the lab is working on now is known as the "Magic Book."

This is pretty fun stuff: By utilizing a pair of virtual reality glasses, a user can see a regular book page come to life.

This works, explained Weghorst and graduate student Ani Vijayakanthan, by programming the computer running the equipment to superimpose in the vision of the person wearing the glasses a 3D image over whatever information is placed inside a box on the page with thick black lines.

Road Trip 2006

This means, for example, that a book can be made to be entirely interactive, depending on the story and what the person wearing the glasses does while looking at a particular page. For example, at one point Vijayakanthan lowered the angle of vision onto a digital princess floating above the page on a screen the rest of the observers could see--which showed what he could see in the glasses.

Vijayakanthan said a New Zealand company is in the process of working on producing some children's books that would incorporate the technology.

But he also said researchers are investigating ways to make the technology work without requiring the use of the boxes with thick black lines. Instead, he said, the idea would be that any book could be the jumping off point.

"If you did this with 'The Da Vinci Code,' you could live the entire experience," Vijayakanthan said. "The potential is (that) any story could come to life. Readers could go inside and get an ownership feeling of attachment to the story instead of just sifting through the pages."

Weghorst said one of the lab's major projects has been what she called the virtual retinal display (VRD), a system that projects an image, via a pair of glasses or some other optical equipment, onto one's retina. It allows a user to see a projected image superimposed on the rest of his or her field of vision.

It's augmented reality, she explained, rather than virtual reality. And its uses range from allowing someone to see a set of written instructions for something they're working on to helping sight-impaired people have a better view of the people around them.

"This could help you recognize your grandchildren or your friends," Weghorst said. "It can help you interpret a scene."

HIT also has what it calls a "pain and phobia" lab. The idea, Weghorst explained, is to help people get over fears, such as that of spiders, or posttraumatic stress from combat.

It allows people to interact slowly on an HMD with things that are related to their fears, a little bit at a time, and associate them with positive images or signals.

"This is a test bed for future medicine," Weghorst said. "It's still not there, and it's still futuristic, but we're getting there and starting to see HMDs in operating rooms."

The HITLab is a treasure for someone who believes virtual environments can provide people with ways to solve many problems brought on by the limits of physics, time or geography.

But I have to say the most fun was getting to be the human hamster, even if I barely mastered walking inside the sphere. And Vijayakanthan laughed as he said the VirtuSphere is just about getting used to it.

"I know a guy who sprints in there and does somersaults," he said. "Once you figure it out, you can do just about anything."

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