James Cameron, meet Dave Zielinski. He has a cooler toy than you do.
Cameron stuck some 3D glasses on you so you can sit and watch the fantastic, virtual world of Avatar. But Zielinski can do one better — he can take you inside a virtual world, let you walk in it and around it, and let you grab and move its objects around.
Zielinski is a software engineer and exhibit driver at the Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), a million-dollar, nine-and-a-half-foot tall cubical room at Duke University that transforms into a virtual reality sandbox. Researchers come to the DiVE with computer models of brains, molecules, or just about anything, which Zielinski uploads into the room. Once he activates these virtual objects, they eerily hover inside this glowing cave, allowing researchers to visualize and manipulate them from entirely new angles, free from gravity.
Imagine building a house of cards, but all your cards are floating in thin air, waiting for you to move them into place. You still have to wear 3D glasses to see this effect, but that’s what the DiVE can let you do.
And Zielinski gets paid to operate this powerful tool every day.
“It’s like my dream job,” says Zielinski, who has a master’s degree in computer science.
There are only three other such facilities in the U.S., and their uses aren’t limited to playing with fancy models. Recently, Zielinski and his DiVE colleagues helped behavioral psychologists study human reactions to fear. Test subjects sat in a virtual room projected by the DiVE, and a virtual snake would jump out in surprise. Sensors then detected the electrical activity of the person’s skin, which helps measure the degree of instinctive fear responses.
A bit safer than throwing a real snake at a person to scare them.
DiVE has educational value as well. Medical students use it to visualize the human brain. Another program helps high school students understand metabolism, by letting them drag and move atoms to simulate chemical reactions in three-dimensional space.
It’s a page out of science fiction, like the holodecks portrayed on Star Trek: The Next Generation. And the 3D objects themselves are sometimes created in Hollywood software such as Maya, used to help create games and movies like, well, Avatar.
So with virtual worlds and million-dollar, cutting edge technology in the palms of his hands, what would Zielinski play with if he could design anything for the DiVE?
“I would make virtual musical instruments.”
James Cameron, take a seat. Rock Band, you’re next.
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