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Rutgers professor discusses technology, applications of virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR) technology is gaining more and more popularity through products such as the Oculus Rift and Virtuix Omni.

Grigore Burdea, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, teaches a course on virtual reality.

“(Virtual reality) is a synthetic world with which the user interacts in real time, meaning instantaneously, and in which the user is fully immersed, meaning the user really believes that he/she is in a different world than where he/she actually <g>is,</g>” <g>Burdea</g> said.

The interaction with the synthetic world is through multiple sensorial channels, not just what the user sees and hears, but in some systems also what the user feels and smells, he said.

A virtual reality system can work in different ways. In the case of Oculus, users wear a head-mounted display. This display works in that if users move their heads in one direction, the computer moves the image in the opposite way, he said.

There is a camera looking at the user that communicates with the computer to tell it which direction the user is looking, letting the computer can change the image immediately, he said.

One special type of virtual reality that takes immersion to a whole new level is the Virtuix Omni product. In this omnidirectional system, the user stands on a special surface, wearing a head mounted display and is able to run in every direction, he said.

“You’re no longer talking about the user sitting still and interacting, you’re talking about the user physically taking an infinite (number) of steps in that virtual environment," he said. "The idea is you want to create an ever-larger virtual space as opposed to just a very small local space.”

Rutgers "is a pioneer in virtual reality," being the first university in the state to start teaching virtual reality more than 15 years ago, he sai<g><g>d.</g></g>

<g><g>Rutg</g></g>ers has its own virtual reality lab in which students can experience the technology, Burdea said.

“We have a powerful workstation with special graphics, 3-D glasses, the falcon machines, and we have 3-D sound. We even have game controllers, which are bimanual, meaning you interact with both hands,” he said.

<g>The falcon</g> is a machine that sits on your desk and can replicate different sensations such as jolts, vibrations and the compliance of an object. This is one such machine that allows the whole experience to feel more realistic, he said.

Virtual reality has many useful applications in the real world in fields such as medicine and the military, making it possible to solve problems that conventional medicine could not, he said.

This technology is also extremely useful for training pilots, doctors and even astronauts. Virtual reality is cheaper than traditional training and is much more forgiving when mistakes are made, he said.

“There are things you can do in VR that you could never do in real reality. For example, you could make yourself as small as a molecule and go inside the body and study the molecular forces," Burdea said. "People have to open their (minds) and understand how powerful this thing is.”

Gavriel <g>Tsioni</g>, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said he believes VR is the next big step in terms of technology, and soon it will not be so intimidating to people new to the technology.

“The first movie that came out was a video of a train that was going straight towards the camera. And people in the movie theatre were terrified and were storming out. For us it’s no big deal now, but to them it was so intense. I think virtual reality will be our equivalent of that,” he said.

He also said if given that chance, he would love to use VR to see what the dinosaurs were like.

Daniel <g>Tsioni</g>, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, is also <g style="line-height: 1.6em; background-color: initial;">amazed by</g> the possibilities that VR provides.

“Anything that can be developed on a computer, you can go there and explore it in virtual reality. There’s a new genre of entertainment where developers make an extremely beautiful and immersive scene that you walk around in and explore," he said.

<g>Burdea</g> also raised the issue that like any other technology, VR can have both negative and positive aspects.

“Philosophically, it is like any other technology in the sense that it can be used for the better of the world or for the worse,” he said. “Even with a pencil you can write a wonderful poem or you can stick it in someone’s eye. VR is not special in that respect. You can do good or bad with it.”

Madhuri Bhupathiraju is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @madhuri448 for more.