University Researchers Demonstrate New Virtual Reality Technology

Fairbanks, Alaska - Most people can imagine using a computer program to produce art. But imagine having the ability to run a 3D-computer program with your body-without the aid of a mouse or keyboard.

This is just the kind of technology that Chris Hartman, a University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Computer Science faculty member, and Bill Brody, head of UAF's Art Department, are striving for. Last month Hartman took his and Brody's ideas to Orlando, Florida, for demonstration at Supercomputing '98, the annual international high performance networking and computing conference.

Hartman and Brody are using virtual reality technology at the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center to design a program called Body Language User Interface (BLUI).

"It's a three-dimensional drawing program," says Hartman, "But what makes it special is that it's based on your gestures." The user draws on a virtual reality screen with a wand, and can "undo" with a shake of the head, or "quit" by dropping his or her hands to the side.

Hartman said they're working on a feature for the interface which will, in the near future, take video input from either side of a Pyramid Systems ImmersaDesk visualization screen and give the computer "eyes" to recognize the users' hand as a tool. As an open hand swipes across a line on a 3D sketch, the line will widen. A grabbing motion will replace the usual "select" menu.

"There are other ways out there to do this, such as data gloves," Hartman said. "But they all require expensive special equipment. Our interface will be much simpler and use readily available hardware."

Another benefit of the system is that it could act as an interface for scientific data visualization and analysis programs, Brody said. These programs model scientific data into 3-, 4- and 5Dspace.

"Eventually Bill wants to sculpt-to do things you normally wouldn't be able to do with certain materials," says Hartman. This would mean an artist might be able to add rock to a sculpture, something that is impossible in reality. The researchers will use video cameras to capture human gestures and create and manipulate virtual objects. Some information is still based on how the user moves the wand and where the user looks on the screen with the aid of special glasses. "Ideally, you eventually won't use the wand at all," says Hartman.

Hartman and Brody will demonstrate this new program on a 7 foot Pyramid Systems Virtual Reality ImmersaDesk, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon Dec. 3, in Butrovich 007 on the UAF Campus.

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