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New Mexico firm thinking beyond military applications for surround-imagery Multifunction Dome technology
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(Albuquerque Journal (NM) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 3-It doesn't take much to imagine the commercial potential for the technology Albuquerque's Game Production Services developed for a first-of-its-kind training simulator for the U.S. Army.
The company recently announced the completion of the Multifunction Dome, an 18-foot-high, 37-foot-wide platform that employs 84 projectors and ultrasurround sound system to create a 360-degree "immersive environment" for the Army's Air Defense School at Fort Sill, Okla.
For now, the $3.5 million dome will be used to train Stinger missile crews, allowing trainees to interact with overhead aircraft with simulated instruments such as binoculars, radios and global positioning systems.
"That's not to say we developed it specifically for the Army," said GPS co-owner Glyn Anderson. "We've always had in mind the idea this could be used as a generic immersive environment not just for military applications, but for entertainment and other uses -- scientific visualization, education ... we have a long list of potential applications." Anderson and his wife and company CEO, Janeen, formed GPS in 2003. A California native, Anderson has a background in software engineering, and not surprisingly, commercial video game creation "going way back to those eight-bit days" in the early 1980s. His wife, the daughter of an Air Force family who grew up in New Mexico, has a background in material science engineering and has managed companies since the early 1990s.
All told, GPS employs 15 people, including the Andersons, in a fairly innocuous building on Comanche, just east of Interstate 25, its home since 2006.
The company describes itself as a developer of "serious" games and immersive environments, "bridging the gap," in Anderson's words, between games and demanding applications required by the military.
Immersive environment is a term to describe an artificial setting that simulates a real environment.
Think amusement parks "Amusement parks do it well immersing you in an environment -- land of the pirates, or something like that," Anderson said. "We're using the term to mean more specifically something that creates an immersion with a combination of computer generated graphics and physical elements." Janeen continued: "Unlike virtual reality where you have a helmet on, you're able to interact with the virtual world you are seeing in more natural ways. You are able to see yourself, the objects you might be holding or interacting with, or other people. You can have group activity in the dome, which opens up a larger set of possibilities." Those who've visited the LodeStar planetarium in Albuquerque would get a small sense of how the Multifunction dome works.
"That's a partial dome and it's projected from the front so you look up and what you see completely fills your field of view," Janeen Anderson said. "But you're sitting stationary and looking pretty much in one direction and if you were to look around you, you'd see where those images are coming from." The Multifunction dome is a hemisphere of screen material held in place by a metal frame that completely surrounds the user. Suspended outside the dome are 84 projectors that project a high-resolution -- more than 46 megapixels -- single coordinated image.
"It completely surrounds you, 360 degrees around," Glyn Anderson said. "There's really no place to look other than the floor where you don't see the immersive imagery." The dome also features an 18-speaker, 6,500-watt sound system "that gives not only the kind of surround sound we're used to -- things come from the left, the right and behind -- but also comes from above so you get a fully immersive 3-D effect," he said.
What they're seeing
The mockup for the Army's dome offers a 60-degree glimpse of the real dome at Fort Sill, depicting part of an Iraqi village with buildings, streets, vehicles and swaying trees, surrounded by the desert. A computer command can change the lighting to match the time of day, or provide different weather conditions, as Janeen demonstrated with snowflakes, then raindrops.
"There exists a legacy population of domes out there that are projected from inside the dome," she said. "What is unique with what we gave them with the Multifunction Dome is they are able to look up and see the free sky and aircraft flying through it." Glynn Anderson said the dome could be adapted for training on any number of weapons systems such as the antitank Javelin missile, or for close air support.
"Instead of shooting planes down, they could have them shoot at ground targets," he said. "The dome is capable of all those things." The dome is a "soup to nuts" venture for GPS.
"Not only have we designed the physical structure, which is the display, but it's driven by software we've created, which is a, to throw out a couple of technical terms, a multichanneled distributed computing renderer," Glyn said.
The Andersons say the project is attracting nonmilitary attention.
Theme parks, nightclubs and movies "There are some talks we're kind of in the middle of that we really can't discuss at the moment, but one area we're really interested in pursuing would be amusement parks," Janeen said. "Universal Studios just announced they'll be opening this spring the World of Harry Potter -- so imagine there's a virtual dome you can go into where flying above you is a Quidditch match and you can interact with it.
"As another example -- this is a less interactive one, though it could be made interactive -- imagine a high-end nightclub where the dome is a dance floor and you're surrounded by, you know, psychedelia or other rocks videos," said Glyn. "Whatever it might be, it's just a surround environment." The applications don't stop there. Large corporations that do design work -- architectural, civil engineering, or aerospace groups, for example -- could use it as a visualization tool. It could be used to display vast quantities of data generated by a supercomputers to solve a problem, Glyn Anderson said.
"You could walk into the dome and be surrounded by the task at hand," he said.
And then there's the film industry.
"There's pre-visualization, being able to bring actors onto what is a virtual set because they haven't built it yet, doing rehearsals or blocking or what have you," he said. "I'm especially excited to find out what people in the film industry think it could be used for." Janeen said with additional sales of the dome, GPS foresees a period of growth ahead.
"We have some projects with the Marines and, of course, we are still supporting the Stinger dome at Fort Sill," Glyn said. "There are some pretty hot irons in the fire. There are other things going on."
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