An affordable holodeck for civil engineers

December 21, 2014

VuePod (credit: BYU)

Brigham Young University (BYU) student civil engineers have constructed an affordable 3D immersive visualization system from commercial off-the-shelf components and open-source software.

The “VuePod” system uses 12 high-definition, 55-inch 3D televisions all connected to a computer capable of supporting high-end, graphics-intensive visualization.  Images are controlled by a Wii remote that interacts with a Kinect-like  3D tracking device called SMARTTRACK. 3D glasses worn by the user create the added dimension.

The VuePod allows users to virtually fly over, wander through, or hover above 3D environments that are otherwise difficult to visit. The images are created by point data from aircraft equipped with LIDAR (like RADAR, but with lasers), which scans the landscape and records millions of data points that can later be viewed represented as an image on the VuePod’s 108-square-foot screen. Point data can also be created from stitched-together photographs taken from low-cost drones.

One set of data currently available for study in the VuePod captured a canyon area beneath a plateau in southern Idaho. With 3D glasses and the Wii controller, a user can virtually drop down into the canyon from above, and then fly from one end to the other. For example, two sets of data for the same canyon, taken five years apart can show changes in the natural landscape that are normally invisible to the human eye.

The VuePod also has the potential to assist in infrastructure monitoring — such as tracking how highways hold up over time and seeing the affect on buildings after severe weather or earthquakes.

VuePod can’t compete with high-end systems like the Reality Deck at Stony Brook University (SBU), with 1.5 billion pixels shown on 416 super-high-resolution screens in a four-walled surround-view theater, driven by a 220 TFLOPs graphic supercomputer — the highest-resolution  immersive display ever built. But such system cost as much as $10 million to build and maintain, while BYU’s VuePod barely topped  $30,000.

At the other end of the resolution scale, Oculus Rift comes in at under $400 for less than HD screen (960 x 1080 pixels per eye).

Abstract of Mobile, Low-Cost, and Large-Scale Immersive Data Visualization Environment for Civil Engineering Applications

This case study presents the design and development of a three-dimensional (3D) immersive visualization system constructed from commercial off-the-shelf components and open-source software that is intended to address the following key challenges for the practical use of immersive environments: (1) extreme costs in both hardware and software; (2) immobility due to calibration and darkroom requirements; and (3) extensive and expensive manpower requirements for both operation and maintenance. The system—called the VuePod—uses 12 consumer grade passive 3D television monitors, an active tracking system, and a modular construction approach. The VuePod capitalizes on recent functional advancements and cost decreases in both hardware and software and is demonstrated herein as a viable alternative to prohibitively expensive projector-based walk-in computer automatic virtual environments (CAVEs). The case study presents a full description of the hardware and its assembly, the software and its configuration, the modular structural system, results from benchmark computation and visualization tests, and a comparison to other several other immersive visualization systems in terms of cost, scale, pixel density, and system requirements.