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Astrobiology Builds Interactive Virtual Reality Room


Computational Astrobiology Summer Symposium attendees show IfA Director Günther Hasinger the UH NASA Astrobiology Institute’s virtual reality CAVE. Photo by Minghui Chen.

Imagine taking a stroll on Mars. This may soon be possible without leaving Hawai‘i. The UH NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI) has built a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), a virtual reality room in which the walls are very large television screens, and tracking cameras pinpoint the location of users wearing special 3-D glasses as they move around the room. Because the CAVE is three-dimensional and interactive, users are able to walk around an image to study it from various angles or grab a virtual object and manipulate it. That image could show the surface of a comet or a protein molecule.

The CAVE was built and programmed as part of the UHNAI-sponsored Computational Astrobiology Summer Symposium (CASS) held in August under the direction of Kim Binsted, a UH professor of information and computer sciences and a UHNAI team member. The purpose of CASS was to explore new, more affordable ways to capture the essence of virtual reality for the interdisciplinary research of astrobiology. While older virtual reality research environments were prohibitively expensive, research and commercial development in computer games and blockbuster movies have done much to simplify things. At the symposium, two computer-game professionals experienced in the use of multimillion-dollar visualization equipment met with a group of six young computer scientists to explore simpler, cheaper virtual-reality alternatives during a two-week challenge to build something that can advance research for existing astrobiology projects.

The work on the CAVE was interspersed with a series of presentations and discussions regarding the scope of astrobiological research, including presentations by Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), NASA scientists, and researchers from UH. The CASS team pooled their expertise to design something to fit the budget, the time frame, and the research they were hearing about.

The UHNAI team will now use the CAVE to explore a variety of data analysis challenges that are currently impeded by traditional, two-dimensional displays. Specific projects range from developing software that will allow UHNAI researchers to visualize comets in new, unique ways to a real-time virtual collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology to build protein molecules relevant to the origin of life.

The CAVE may also be used to show scientific data to the public in a way that is “engaging and intuitive,” according to Binsted. The UHNAI team is currently soliciting ideas for public outreach events that can engage a broader audience in computer-aided research: You can expect an appearance at the next IfA Manoa Open House in April 2012.

The CAVE was assembled and tested in a first-floor office at IfA in August. Soon, it will be moved to its permanent home—a room with no windows so it can be totally dark except for the computer-generated visuals. The CASS participants were happily surprised at their success in dramatically reducing the budget for this research tool, and the UHNAI team is excited about starting to work with it.