Jim Bernard, VRAC, (515) 294-3092
Carolina Cruz-Neira, VRAC, (515) 294-3092
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917


AMES, Iowa -- Virtual reality is about to grow up. C6, the first virtual reality theater in the United States designed to totally immerse the user in images and sound, will open on June 19 at Iowa State University.

C6, located in the atrium of the College of Engineering's Howe Hall, will not only push the boundaries of virtual reality (VR) technology, it will also turn VR into a much more useful engineering tool.

"C6 is one of the most exciting projects that we have ever undertaken," said Iowa State Engineering Dean James Melsa. "It is truly a one-of-a-kind, world-class facility. The applications that will be run in C6 will lead to new ways for scientists to do research and for companies to do product development. But what makes C6 unique is the focus on real-world applications, real-world engineering."

"C6 will provide a space where real engineering can be accomplished in a virtual environment," added Jim Bernard, director of Iowa State's Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC). "C6 is the first wireless, six-sided virtual reality theater and it will be home to some very interesting engineering projects."

A preview of the $6 million C6 for the media is scheduled for 4 p.m., June 19. The formal unveiling will be at 7:30 p.m. C6's unveiling is being held in conjunction with the International Immersive Projection Technology 2000 workshop, a leading international conference on virtual reality and immersion technologies.

Virtual reality uses computer images and sound to create environments that can be experienced as "real" to the user. There are several virtual reality technologies, including head-mounted displays, virtual reality desk systems and virtual reality rooms. The idea is to "immerse" the user into a world that exists only as computer images.

But each of the current technologies has limitations. C6 will change that.

C6 will have images projected on all six of its sides (four walls, ceiling and floor). Many of today's virtual reality rooms have images projected on only four sides (three walls and the floor).

Traditional cabling for gloves and headsets, essential tools that provide perspective and allow user interaction with images, will be gone. They will be replaced by wireless systems that will give users of C6 an unprecedented level of freedom within its walls.

"By going wireless, we can provide full motion so you are really immersed in data," said Carolina Cruz-Neira, Litton assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State and associate director of VRAC. "When you are in there you will forget which wall is the door. You will not realize you are in a virtual environment."

In addition, the latest computers and graphics will provide crisp, bright and realistic images that respond to human interaction. Many of the systems used in C6 and built by leading computer and graphics vendors, have yet to be commercialized.

"C6 will open new avenues for research on the applications of virtual reality to science and engineering challenges," Cruz-Neira said. "C6 will provide a room where the users will share virtual worlds, as well as experience perspectives unique to their location and vantage point."

In C6, researchers will be able to walk inside buildings that no longer exist, get close-up views of severe weather phenomena like tornadoes and inspect the interior of operating industrial furnaces to make them more efficient. Cruz-Neira says C6 will be a powerful tool for each of these applications because it will literally put the user right in the middle of the action.

"It will provide full, look-around capabilities," Cruz-Neira explained. "With architectural models like the Notre Dame cathedral, you will be able to look up and see the paintings and designs on the ceiling. Inside an industrial furnace, you will be able to check the flow, which would go up overhead, and see how location of the burners can affect overall system efficiency. And you will be able to do this with more than one person experiencing it."

C6 has a 10-by-10-by-10-foot room of workable space. Entrance will be through the back wall which, when closed, will have no noticeable seams along its surfaces. High resolution color images will surround the user via six, rear-projected high intensity projectors. Four wall projectors provide images directly on the surfaces. The ceiling and floor projectors will bounce images off mirrors before reaching the surface.

C6 will use SGI Onyx2 computers running special software to create simulations, produce sounds, track feedback and generate images. Six Barco projectors provide real-time 3-D images on the display surfaces. Ascension Technology Corp., wireless trackers allow the users to interact with the virtual world. The system was designed and implemented by MechDyne Corp., in cooperation with researchers at VRAC.

Iowa State will continue to operate its existing VR facility, the C2, and will link the two facilities and explore distributed virtual reality.

"Distributed VR is the future," Cruz-Neira said. "It will allow researchers in two or more different facilities, which could be located in different places anywhere in the world, to share their experiences and help come to solutions on tough engineering problems."

The Virtual Reality Applications Center is a member of the Institute for Physical Research and Technology, a network of research, technology development and technology transfer entities at Iowa State University. For more information on VRAC, visit http://www.vrac.iastate.edu/.

C6 is financed through university and federal funds as well as private gifts to the ISU Foundation.

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Reporters are welcome to come experience C6, the first six-sided virtual reality theater. A media availability for reporters is scheduled for 4 p.m., June 19. The experience is very visual and photographic. Please contact Skip Derra, ISU News Service, 515/294-4917 if you would like to attend.

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