What if you could explore and conduct research on the floor of the Grand Canyon, or examine archaeological sites underneath the Vatican, without ever leaving the Philadelphia region?
By next fall, those kinds of experiences and many more will be available to students and the broader community inside a virtual-reality enclosure off the lobby of Villanova University's Falvey Library.
The project is known as a CAVE, which stands for Cave Automated Virtual Environment. It's being developed under a $1.67 million grant from the National Science Foundation, awarded this year to a team led by computer scientist Frank Klassner.
CAVEs have spurred a wide variety of applications since their development two decades ago. Rowan University's Virtual Reality Lab, for instance, has used the technology for projects as diverse as structural modeling, urban planning, and 3D medical visualizations. Engineers use one at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
But Klassner says Villanova won a highly competitive NSF grant because it will marry its CAVE with another cutting-edge technology - a six-lens robotic camera. With the omnidirectional video it can capture, Klassner and his colleagues believe they can extend virtual reality's value for both research and education.
Klassner says video enables a CAVE to transport students anywhere a camera can go. And the camera can capture real-world details that enable the CAVE itself to become a research lab.
Klassner has already used the $15,000 Ladybug camera, with its 360-degree horizontal reach, to take immersive videos at sites such as the battlefield at Gettysburg and Independence Hall, so he'll be ready when Iowa's Mechdyne Corp. delivers the CAVE itself in the spring. But the 47-year-old scientist has much broader horizons in mind.
"Imagine you're teaching a class on Shakespeare, and you could take your whole class to the Globe Theatre," he says.
Or say a classicist or art historian wanted students to experience Rome's Pantheon. Traveling en masse would be prohibitively costly, and using the tools of computer-generated imagery to render the site digitally would take "dozens of person-months," Klassner says.
But with the Ladybug camera and CAVE, "I can show you the real thing in a fraction of the time," he says. One teacher, equipped with a robotic Ladybug, could make the trip to a site - albeit while subject to potentially tricky negotiations to gain access to restricted locations.
The sky is the limit - well, that or the ground. The Ladybug's 120-degree vertical reach doesn't allow the camera to capture both simultaneously. But that makes it a good match for a CAVE that can project images onto three side walls and either the ceiling or the floor, but not both.
In fact, the ground is already on Villanova researchers' minds. Klassner says geography and environmental science professors want to use the system to monitor flood plains in Valley Forge National Historical Park, to develop better models for carbon sequestration.
Klassner says the camera and CAVE will enable his team to improve on Google's familiar Street View technology, in which users hop from one still-photograph perspective to the next - an experience that confuses many even as it amazes them.
"We want to be able to take you down that city block in continuous motion," he says.
Other departments are eager to get involved, too. Engineering professor Edmond Dougherty, a grant coauthor who is creating the camera's robot, wants to develop boots that would allow a person to walk or run through a virtual environment. Psychologists are interested in using the camera to capture ordinary street views, rich with detail. Back in the CAVE, they'll be able to study what draws subjects' attention and what they overlook.
"With the camera, you can easily see whatever the world looks like as you move around," Klassner says. And by this time next year, so will anybody inside Villanova's CAVE.