ORONO, Maine — Boardman Hall at the University of Maine is engulfed in flames. Fire alarms blare in the background and thick, disorienting smoke impairs your vision. But with the click of a mouse at a nearby computer, the corners, doorjambs, door handles suddenly come into view, illuminated by white outlines. Room numbers appear on the doors, along with information about dangerous materials stored inside. Things suddenly seem more navigable, less chaotic.
After looking around, fighting the impulse to reach out for doorknobs that aren’t actually there, you take off the head-mounted display and find yourself safe inside Room 236 of Boardman Hall, home to the university’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction, or VEMI, Laboratory and its researchers, who are trying to shape how you’ll see the world in the future.
The lab is mostly empty, with a whiteboard and a few computers and screens along the wall. But in this open space, using a head-mounted display hanging from the ceiling, the group can simulate sights and sounds, immersing the wearer in a computer-generated world of their choosing.
At the laboratory’s helm is Nicholas Giudice, who came to the university in 2008 with a background in cognitive neuroscience psychology to join the UMaine faculty in the school of computing and information science and create a virtual reality laboratory.
“One of the things that we study is how people interact with their environment, learn about their environment, navigate their environment, and virtual reality … it’s a great way to do that because we can create any type of environment that we want,” Giudice said. “We can make a complicated building or complicated city. We can play with the variables like the time of day or make the building burn or make the city have a disaster, what have you, and then look at how people are able to act and interact in those situations.”
In one simulation, the group placed a wind turbine in a hilly, grassy area. For people concerned about what a wind turbine near their hometown or off the Maine coast might look or sound like, the laboratory can use data ranging from topography to noise levels to put people in the scenario and show them what they would experience if the turbine existed.
Virtual reality can be disorienting at first. As you turn your head, the image displayed in front of your eyes adjusts based on your movement or orientation in a room. VEMI students and staff created a simulation of the VEMI lab itself, and by walking to the light switch in the simulation, you can find the real light switch, but it can be unnerving to reach for a switch, only to find that you can’t see your hands.
“We’ve had to stop people from sitting on a virtual couch because they think it’s real,” Giudice said.
“People aren’t all that good at imagining things,” VEMI lab manager Richard Corey said, but this technology aims to give them an accurate representation of what the reality would be like.
The potential applications for the technology are far-reaching. It could be a tool for people training for disasters, such as firefighters or emergency management groups.
While “setting my lab on fire is something that’s frowned upon by the university,” Giudice said, simulated fires could prove to be useful training tools. Simulations could also be developed for areas ravaged by tornadoes to show emergency responders where homes once stood and assist them in planning searches.
For the average person, the technology presents the opportunity to become more efficient at work or safer in day-to-day life.
Giudice, who is visually impaired, said the group also is working on augmented reality technologies that could alter the way people perceive their surroundings. For example, low-vision edge detection identifies and highlights variations using contrasts in surfaces. The result is an outline that reveals where doors, handles, ceilings, floors and corners are located.
This could prove useful to the elderly, whose spatial recognition and vision can begin to suffer in old age, according to Giudice. Augmented reality could better allow them to see stairs or virtually increase the size of a stop sign to make it more visible while they’re driving.
Facilities maintenance crews, plumbers and construction workers might save time and money by using a feature that simulates buildings based on computerized blueprints. Using virtual reality, workers can “see through” the walls to find plumbing, electrical wires and other utilities that might need work, rather than digging through old building plans or hoping they open the wall in the right place.
Currently, the virtual reality and augmented reality display technologies are bound to cumbersome headsets, but within the next two to three years, that technology could be scaled down to work in glasses, goggles and visors, according to Richard Corey, VEMI lab manager.
Google is working on Project Glass, an effort to create a small headset with a monocle that acts like a touchless smartphone, allowing you to make calls, answer text messages, or look up directions without using your hands. That could eventually lead to glasses that double as augmented reality devices.
“The bottom line is that spatial behaviors are essential to our lives, and if people cannot safely and efficiently navigate their environment, their vocational, social and education opportunities become contracted,” Giudice said.