Virtual Advantage: High-tech tools link university, military training centers.

It looks like a war zone in the University of Louisiana's Abdalla Hall. Actually, special 3-D glasses are needed to see the battle because it’s a virtual war zone.

Dioselin  Gonzalez and Carsten Neumann test the omni-directional treadmill at the University of LouisianaDr. Carolina Cruz-Neira, the W. Hansen Hall professor in Computer Engineering, and a team of university researchers built a cave-like environment that takes users into a virtual dimension. Giant screens form a backdrop for an oversized treadmill that is capable of moving in all directions.

“It’s kind of like a prototype for a Star Trek holodeck,” said Cruz-Neira, a pioneer in the virtual reality realm. “The screens immerse you in a world generated by computers and you have 3-D perception just as if you were watching a 3-D movie or an IMAX movie.”

It’s the only one of its kind on a university campus; others are on military bases.

Three projection screens surround the omni-directional treadmill, while eight high-definition cameras mounted on the screens capture the user’s movement. Projectors display computer-generated environments on the screens. while wearing 3-D glasses, users are immersed in a virtual reality world.

That world can resemble any location, from the Sahara Desert to the streets of Paris. It can also mimic environmental conditions. “We can create simulations of various situations from heavy winds to earthquakes,” Cruz-Neira said.

the 12-foot-tall by 9-foot-wide contraption resembles a three-sided box, with one wall left open to enable a person to step onto the treadmill.

UL acquired the treadmill and designed and built the projection chamber around it to create a virtual environment to enter simulated worlds that can be explored by walking. UL received $3.1 million in federal funds for a research project for the U.S. Army Research Laboratories in Maryland.

“Specifically, we are conducting research on the levels of stress on foot soldiers on a battlefield. we’re developing scenarios that would be comparable to what they would find in battle and we are measuring their reactions and their mental abilities in these environments,” Cruz-Neira said.

Soldiers participating in the study will wear sensors to monitor their brain activity and temperature as they move through the virtual war zone.

these environments could include sniper gunfire, car explosions or hand grenades. “They will experience things just as if they are in a war. They will have to react quickly and computers will record their responses,” Cruz-Neira explained.

Researchers are developing these scenarios with actual testing on soldiers set to begin by year’s end. Software applications are also being developed to connect the military’s treadmills with UL treadmill, so soldiers can virtually travel together through battlefields.

Kathy Kehring is the tactical environment simulation facility manager at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Durham, N.C., which houses another omni-directional treadmill. Three more are in place at the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Battle Lab in Fort Benning, Ga.

“These immersive simulators provide for repeatable, event-driven research scenarios where soldiers can be placed in stressful or seemingly dangerous operational situations with no risk to their safety. We can see the effects of both the cognitive and the physical workload on human performance,” Kehring said.

Earlier versions of the treadmill fell short of creating the kind of virtual environment researchers were looking for. Today’s treadmill has a larger working surface and its design “enables the soldiers to go prone or crawl. These factors, and others, all contribute to increased physical immersion into the environment and more realistic effects from the physical workout,” Kehring continued. “You would not see the same realistic effects from the physical workload and fatigue using a joystick or game controller to move through a simulated environment.”

According to Kehring, researchers can measure a wide variety of factors, such as “biomechanical motion, time to complete a task, path traveled, target acquisition and identification, virtually anything occurring in the environment.”

Dr. Robert Stewart, vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at UL, said the treadmill could have additional applications in the future.

“The omni-directional treadmill is a very important piece of equipment as we develop research programs relating to 3-D and visualization. These programs could include training for emergency responders or even mobility help for the elderly.”

Stewart noted that multiple disciplines on campus could take advantage of the treadmill. “I would envision faculty from the College of Sciences, College of Engineering and College of Education benefiting from research opportunities that arise with this treadmill.

“It’s an amazing piece of equipment.”

Photograph: University of Louisiana at Lafayette research scientists test the omni-directional treadmill in Abdalla Hall. Dioselin Gonzalez is walking in the virtual environment. Carsten Neumann monitors computers used to collect data.

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