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Virtual reality in a real lab

Some of hottest virtual- and augmented-reality projects began in a University of Washington lab. Photos: Virtual-reality 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.

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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.

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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."

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."