Tech Beat/With Gallery and Video: University of Michigan 3D Lab blurs line between virtual and reality
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There’s a powerful room at the University of Michigan tucked away in the unassuming Duderstadt Center on North Campus. The “room” — three white walls and a floor — opens doors that could allow to you to fly past the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.
Granted, those stars and the morning have to be simulated using a complex algorithm and inputted into the four computers that each control one surface of the $1 million virtual reality room. But a kid can always dream, right?
“Well, what you have is not just one 3-D screen, but four,” advanced visualization specialist Ted Hall said.
“When you’re in the space it’s going to update all of the perspectives that come into your point of view. It’s not quite reality, but it creates a very strong feeling of immersion.”
The room, formally known as the Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus (MIDEN, pronounced My-Den), is one component of the University of Michigan 3D Lab, a division of the U-M Library System. Lab manager Eric Maslowski said that while his tools are sometimes cooler, his lab functions much as a regular library does.
“The library is a huge collection of books, some of them very expensive and rare, where you can walk in the door and get access to them and to the expertise needed to navigate and understand them,” he said.
“Our collections are a bit different. We deal with hardware and software, and if someone comes in and says ‘I have a 3-D model and I want to make a physical version of this,’ we have the expertise to help them.”
Six staff members and 12 students work together in the lab, which receives its primary operating funds from the library system. The center’s budget is enhanced with grant money from collaborative projects with faculty and students, including a current $600,000 grant project programming a mobile game for people recovering from spinal cord injuries.
A wide variety of people come to the lab, which offers a range of services that includes 3-D “printing,” 3-D imaging and mobile app development.
In order to “print” something in three dimensions, special machines take a digital model of the product and build it layer by layer. This molding process allows for printing parts within parts with no assembly required.
This modeling is done for students and faculty for only the cost of materials. “Prints” cost 40 cents per cubic centimeter of material plus a $20 build fee. Maslowski said the lab printed about 6,000 prototypes and sculptures over the past year.
“One of my favorites that we made is a mold of a child’s nose that surgeons use to practice removing peanuts from,” he said.
“The only noses they could acquire were adult noses, so we took MRI data from a child’s nose and made this model, now they can practice all they want.”
The lab also has the ability to move in the other direction, creating digital images of physical objects. Shawn O’Grady, the lab’s digital fabrication guru, explained that a hand-held scanner can take anything from a golf ball to a fender and create a perfect 3-D digital rendering.
“The scanner was taken to South Africa to scan a dinosaur track site,” Maslowski said.
“They used to go down with a lot of plaster making materials but plaster has a high risk of cracking or being damaged. In this case, they went down with the scanner and walked away with all of the data on USB drives. With it in digital form they were able to send it to whoever wanted it and “print” out molds in different materials.”
The lab, founded in 2002 out of the imaging technology group, is using that same ability to create detailed 3-D renderings to digitally preserve artifacts owned by the university.
“Michigan has a very large collection of rare artifacts, and only about 10 percent are ever visible to the public at any one time,” Maslowski said.
“If we can capture those and make digital models, they can much more easily be shared with people who want to use them for research or other just see what they look like.”
Even with all of these impressive technologies, the crown jewel of the lab is clearly MIDEN. Stepping into the cube while wearing special 3-D glasses with motion markers and an X-Box controller allows you to float through the air in a perfect scale model of the new Yost Ice Arena, glide through a visualization of data connecting different defective genes to hereditary diseases, or even paint in three dimensions.
Despite the incredible images and experiences that are already possible, Maslowski and Hall are not satisfied with their room. They say the next step is a more integrated experience.
“Soon you’ll be able to interact in a very really way with the virtual world we create around you without wearing any sort of motion markers,” Maslowski said.
“We have a student who developed a system that uses the Microsoft Kinect, so you’ll be able to go in there and have objects bounce off any part of your body and really interact with the ecosystem around you.”
The lab holds an open house on the second Friday of every semester where it showcases all of its technologies and services, including the MIDEN, 3-D imaging and motion capturing. The next one will be held in January 2013.
Check out Shawn O'Grady explaining how the center's 3D scanner works (apologies for the shaky video):