Brown University and the Future of Virtual Reality


While conceived in the 1960s, the heyday of virtual reality didn’t set in until the ‘80s and ‘90s with the appearance of popular movies like “Tron” and “Lawnmower Man,” and gaming innovations such as SEGA’s VR headset and “Virtuality” arcade games.

There’s a chance that you don’t remember any of that, however, and nobody could blame you. Why? Because the consensus by the late ‘90s was that—though exciting—VR technology just didn’t provide much of an immersive or interesting experience, and besides, the world had other technologies to get wrapped up in, like “the Internet.”

Now, with the rise of Oculus, Magic Leap, and other companies, things may be changing.

Brown University didn’t miss the VR boat, and its virtual reality “Cave” (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) was created in the late ‘90s, around the same time that its Virtual Environment Navigation laboratory (VENlab) was started. I recently had an opportunity to tour both facilities.

Thanks to recent leaps in technology, Brown’s virtual environments are being taken to another level, and it’s indicative of the direction of VR innovation as a whole.

Brown University's old CAVE (virtual reality environment)

The old Brown VR “Cave” (above) is an 8’ by 8’ room, with 3 walls and a floor covered in a projector-displayed virtual environment. After a recent grant of $2 million from the National Science Foundation, that’s all about to change. Set to open for experiments this fall, the new VR “Cave” (below) is an enclosed, circular room—sealed around 360 degrees with projector screens (including its door)—with a small opening at the top for motion-detection cameras to be positioned.

Brown University's new VR Cave (YURT)

The floor, too, will be part of the immersive experience, being composed of nearly half a foot of crystal-clear acrylic. Shipped over in one piece from a specialty Asian manufacturer, this glass-like floor-slab (below) required two walls to be temporarily knocked down in order to get it into the building.

Brown's new VR cave floor

The new space is referred to as the YURT, named after the portable housing structure used by nomadic tribes in central Asia—where its shape draws direct inspiration.

Meanwhile, across campus inside Brown’s Metcalf Research Laboratory is the university’s virtual environment navigation laboratory, “VENlab.” Run by William H. Warren, the VENlab is a large, open space allowing subjects and scientists to walk, run, and jump their way through virtual worlds with the help of a VR headset powered by a backpack battery, and sensors all over the black ceiling.

With these two facilities, Brown aims to extend the applications of virtual reality for scientific research. One of the natural extensions of these research projects is the entrepreneurial opportunity they open up.

Fluidity Software is one Brown virtual reality spinoff. Founded by Donald Carney, a Brown PhD in computer science, the company has taken 3-D visualization technology—like that from Brown’s cave—and brought it to the broader world of research. Using stereoscopic imaging, Fluidity’s “FluidVis” tool allows scientists to create and interact with 3-D models of anything from an MRI scan of a human skull to a model home or building structure. Another VENlab veteran and Brown graduate has started a business selling virtual “people” and objects for virtual worlds to industries such as gaming—as well as research labs.

The possibilities for future business models are immense, and Brown’s professors envision opportunities for startup innovation to increase as their VR facilities continue to upgrade. Dr. Warren told me, “I don’t think Zuckerberg would have gotten in on Oculus without a reason.” He went on to mention that as people begin spending more and more time in virtual reality, there will be myriad opportunities for advertising, or even to make transactions in virtual space.

William H. Warren

William H. Warren

One example that Warren foresees is a virtual showroom. Imagine putting on a headset and being on a virtual car lot. At a certain degree of realism and clarity (and with the addition of virtual driving simulators), there would seem to be little reason to go to a physical dealership. In fact, at some point, physically “going” somewhere to buy something may be seen as antiquated, as tactile senses are brought into the VR experience. Everything from picking up virtual books to trying on virtual clothes may one day be possible, and Warren believes that will be within our lifetime. “I’d be able to be with my relatives in China, sharing a glass of tea or walking in a park together, but from opposite sides of the globe,” he says.

As for the YURT, Brown’s researchers see tremendous possibilities for exploring data sets, and exploring 3-D models. James Head of the planetary geoscience department at Brown has explored detailed, textured maps of deep reaches of Antarctica, and an individual square-mile section of the moon.

The benefit of the YURT setup is that a small team of scientists can be immersed in the same environment, at the same time. With the auto industry putting VR to use seriously (see Ford’s developments, which draw on similar technology to Brown’s “Cave”), such an immersive environment could take modeling and assessing new designs to completely new levels.

Daniel Faggella is an Internet entrepreneur, speaker, author, and the founder of TechEmergence. Follow @danfaggella

Trending on Xconomy