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UMaine virtual reality lab creates simulated realities for navigation

November 25, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
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UMaine virtual reality lab creates something from nothing

November 25, 2011 by Robert Stigile via ISPR -- Imagine you are in a Boston hotel room on the 20th floor when all of a sudden an explosion rocks the building, shattering glass and activating alarms of various kinds throughout the neighborhood.

This emergency scenario presents a multitude of barriers on the path to safety: blocked exits, hallways engulfed in flames, streets closed by safety personnel and widespread pandemonium of all shapes and sizes.

For now, you would have to depend on your own knowledge of the area to safely evacuate. In the future, however, a few punches on your smartphone's screen could chart the path to salvation complete with detours around obstacles, whether indoors or out.

Researchers at the University of Maine's Virtual Environmental and Multimodal Interaction lab are currently working on that problem, combining ideas similar to real-time GPS directions and Google Maps' street view with computer-generated landscapes to assist users in navigating sometimes labyrinthine hallways.

According to Hengshan Li, a doctoral student in UMaine's department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering who is helping develop the technology, said it is "comparable to outdoor GPS in a vehicle, but we want to design a system in a mobile phone to assist people with navigation indoors."

With a Consumer Electronics Association estimate of 15.1 million automotive GPS navigation units sold in 2008, the market for a portable platform that transfers seamlessly from outside to indoors is lucrative, to say the least.

The National Science Foundation apparently realized the value of this technology, awarding the VEMI lab a continuing grant that has funded more than $478,000 since August 2009.

At its most basic level, researchers at the VEMI lab are attempting to use the information humans receive through various sensory input channels -- auditory, tactile and visual -- to create a virtual space that mimics the real world as accurately as possible.

Nicholas Giudice, the VEMI lab director, said the idea is to then take that modeling technology and create a visual navigational aid.

Apart from current GPS mapping technology that gives step-by-step directions from one point to another, Giudice said people currently rely on a mental map to move through their environments, which can sometimes prove problematic.

"You're operating on this cognitive map, this mental map of the world," Giudice said. "Why are some people so good and some people -- it's amazing they even get out of their house."

Make no mistake: the highly detailed models under development in the VEMI lab are a far cry from the red and black wire frame recreations popularized by Nintendo's Virtual Boy game system.

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