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University of Maine students create virtual realities in campus lab

September 15, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
Students create virtual realities in campus lab

By Rachel Curit Sunday, September 11th, 2011 (via ISPR) - Several University of Maine students are escaping the tedium of school on a regular basis, although classes began only two weeks ago, by plugging in to virtual realities.

Unlike students who may avoid the pressures of another semester through video games or movies, these students are able to create their own unreal experiences. They work in the university's Virtual Environment and Multimodal Integration Lab, located on the third floor of Boardman Hall.

In August, Bill Whalen, a graduate assistant in the VEMI lab, posted a job ad for two undergraduate students with an interest in computer programming and coding. The positions were filled by students Jonathan Cole and Joshua Leger.

According to the VEMI Lab website, the primary responsibility for the positions is "writing code for experimental design and development of multimodal virtual reality or augmented reality environments to support lab-related research." Preferably, candidates would be interested in fields such as human-computer interaction and 3-D animation.

The way one enters virtual reality is through the Head Mounted Device, a pair of virtual reality goggles. One example of a virtual reality environment they have created in the VEMI Lab is a fire rescue scenario. The purpose of such a scenario is for fire-fighter trainees to gain some experience without having to enter a burning building.

According to Richard Corey, the VEMI Lab Manager, the graphics of the virtual reality are "about as good as [you'd get] out of an XBox."

Other types of virtual environments students have created are an underwater scene with a ship passing overhead, offshore windmill scenes, architectural environments and even a dungeon lair.

Another project in the works is an indoor navigation system. Much like a GPS, it would allow people to navigate unfamiliar buildings.

"One of my main interests is to double smartphone applications with indoor navigation, but that would just be using audio," said Shreyan Jain, a graduate student working on the project. "So what we are trying to do is to see what's the best mode that we could give spatial information to people using just audio."

One such situation he described would allow blind people to navigate through buildings and scan new rooms. The system would be able tell them there is a desk to the left and an empty chair to the right, for example

Other universities around the country have virtual reality labs as well. The University of Buffalo is working on virtual reality technology such as robotic surgery and remote robotic control.

The Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Houston uses virtual environments for students to learn to assess and treat drug addiction and phobias. Along with virtual reality scenarios and indoor navigation system, UMaine's lab teams up with other departments for collaborative projects.

With the addition of three new undergraduate students, two assigned to 3-D modeling and programming and one to aid experiments, there are now 16 team members.

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