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Firms see advantages in getting virtual insight

Companies are increasingly using computer-generated 3-D imagery to lay the groundwork before making real-world moves.

January 15, 2007|From the Associated Press

FAIRBORN, OHIO — The pillars glide by as you float through the courtyard of an ancient palace. Moments later, the world turns blue as you slip along the ocean floor and poke through the Earth's crust in search of oil.

The journeys take place in Room 278 at the Joshi Research Center, a data-crunching, virtual reality hub where visitors are immersed in a dizzying array of computer-generated 3-D images.

Long a darling of the military, aviation and video game industries, virtual reality is being embraced by more businesses as the falling cost of computing power makes it more affordable.

Manufacturers of farm equipment, car seats, mufflers and other products have joined automakers and aircraft manufacturers in using the technology to speed up and improve product design, train workers and configure factories and stores.

The $2-million Vis Lab at the Joshi center opened in October at Wright State University just outside Dayton, Ohio, enabling businesses to outsource virtual reality work and avoid having to buy the technology themselves. Companies pay $1,000 a day to use the lab and its high-powered computers.

The floor of the Gulf of Mexico floats in the air there on a screen 8 feet by 14 feet awash in the glow of a deep-sea blue. It twists and turns, revealing cracks and fissures. Then it nearly pokes the viewer in the eye, or seems to.

A Houston energy company this year will feed seismic data into the center's computers. The company will sink virtual probes through the virtual crust, looking for salt domes that may hold oil deposits. That could give the business an idea of where the oil is -- or isn't -- and save millions of dollars in drilling costs.

In virtual reality, computers connected to projectors throw alternating left-eye-right-eye images of a 3-D object on a large screen in a way that creates depth. Viewers wear specialized light-polarizing glasses that synchronize the images to complete the 3-D effect.

In immersive visualization, images are projected on all four walls, the ceiling and the floor. As viewers move and turn their heads, the images change to create the illusion of walking or floating.

"It's reaching a level of maturity," said James Oliver, director of the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University. "And you can get a very compelling virtual reality system without having a huge, huge budget."

The center at Iowa State has been used to lay out the floor plans of new factories for maximum efficiency and to design tractors, mechanical cotton pickers and other farm equipment.

"When you stand in one of these immersive rooms, it's as if you're standing in front of the vehicle itself," Oliver said.

Farm equipment maker Deere & Co., based in Peoria, Ill., is using virtual reality at the Iowa center and its own labs to test-drive products not yet built and make sure the equipment will be easy to maintain.

"These experiences help identify design problems with products or work environments that traditionally might not have been noticed until prototypes were built," company spokesman Ken Golden said.

Monica Schnitger, senior vice president of market analysis for the technology research firm Daratech, said immersive visualization was becoming more widely used by large companies. "Simulation of almost any kind usually leads to a better end product," Schnitger said, "and that's always a good strategic move."

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