Computers and Art Meld in Virtual Reality Underworld

Duke's DiVE project proves a mecca for research and education

Written by Monte Basgall

Durham, N.C. -- Doves swirl over the heads of a small group of travelers, one bird carrying a branch in its beak. But the scene suddenly changes to a copse of moss-hung trees, one sporting a golden bough. Then, it changes again.

Now the travelers, all wearing strange dark glasses, are racing down a river through a rapids-splashed chasm. Finally, they reach the calmness of a dock lined with fancifully shaped boats, one looking like a multicolored scorpion.

All in all, an exciting journey -- made possible by Duke undergraduates taking their first plunge into programming virtual reality, a method that uses computers to create artificial worlds.

The "trip" took place in late spring during an open house at the Pratt School of Engineering, where visitors could sample "Visions of the Underworld," an evolving virtual reality dreamscape of mythological themes being created by Duke arts and sciences students.

The event marked an early public demonstration of the power of the DiVE -- the world-class virtual reality chamber built by Rachael Brady's Visualization Technology Group on the ground floor of the Fitzpatrick Building.

"I think it's awesome," said rising senior Bart Bressler, a computer science major who created part of one dreamscape scene. "It has been one of the best experiences I have had at Duke."

DiVE is an acronym for "Duke Immersive Virtual Environment," the lower case "i" reflecting the role of Apple iPods in Duke teaching and learning. In a bit of irony, although DiVE uses some Apple technology, Microsoft Windows provides most of the backbone software driving six computers to create separate and coordinated color images that are projected on the walls, floor and ceiling of the six-sided chamber.

People entering the chamber, which measures roughly 9.5 feet per side, don special stereoscopic glasses to get enveloped in an apparent three-dimensional reality -- complete with surround sound -- that can become whatever programmers want it to be. Many scenes call for the deft touch of an interactive joystick -- technically, a 3-D computer mouse -- to drive the action forward.

Brady, the Oz behind the DiVE, is a Pratt research scientist and adjunct associate professor in the computer science department. She came to Duke in 2002 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she directed a similar virtual reality chamber called the CAVE.

Brady oversaw the planning and construction of the DiVE, which is one of only seven such systems worldwide. The National Science Foundation provided funding.

Since its opening in November 2005, the DiVE -- also called the Visroom -- has become an extended laboratory for numerous scientists and engineers from Duke and beyond.

Among the DiVEers, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering created a virtual forest for studying how wind affects seed dispersal. Biochemists are simulating complex protein molecules and evaluating spatial relationships among them.

Biomedical engineers plan to build giant simulated hearts they can "crawl" through, and a medical student is evaluating ways to use the chamber for teaching anatomy. Cognitive neuroscientists are manipulating the contents of simulated rooms to test how humans sense that objects have been rearranged. And a medical student studying to be an orthopedic surgeon is working with a virtual automobile driving simulator to evaluate how soon people recovering from bone fractures can safely get behind the wheel again.

Arts and humanities researchers and teachers also see the potential of virtual reality. In an interdisciplinary convergence of interests, Rachael Brady is working with Clare Woods, an assistant professor of classics, and other arts-oriented professors at Duke and elsewhere to develop a mythological realm within the DiVE as an undergraduate teaching tool.

"It appeals to my creative side," Woods said of her venture in virtual reality. "What we hope for ultimately is this huge experience where we'll have interconnections between different imagined other-worlds."

Given her interests in the Medieval era, Woods first hoped to summon up the dreams of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century visionary and composer. "But my students are mostly classicists, and when I asked what they would like to see in the DiVE, they said 'the Aeneid, the Underworld!' So we started with that."

In preparation, Woods took a Brady-taught short course on the virtual reality software, called Virtools, used to program scenes. "You don't need that much knowledge to actually create some interesting scenes, so you can have students from classical literature and the arts doing this," said Robert Duvall, a Duke computer science lecturer who first got exposed to virtual reality as a Brown University graduate student.

As Woods explored a new way to teach the classics, Brady grappled with new methods to teach undergraduates who are more oriented toward engineering.

"Engineers typically are trained to find convergent solutions to problems," Brady said. "They go out and find information that will meet a set of specifications and use that to derive a solution. What's missing in a lot of engineering education is at the brainstorming level.

"I'm trying to teach students how to think more divergently -- more as art students are taught," she said. "I've been communicating with art professors, reading about art and teaching my students how to draw. I'm teaching them how to communicate visually. I'm making them keep sketchbooks of their concepts, and emphasizing drawing with paper and pencil."

Students of Anya Belkina, a Duke assistant professor of the practice of visual arts, and Wayne Godwin, an art and design professor at East Carolina University, have joined the project.

Using a modeling software called Maya, Godwin's class designed an animated virtual version of the three-headed watchdog Cerberus in the mythological Greek underworld. It's this creature that snarled and snapped throughout one scene in the DiVE's open-house production.

Godwin's students are now constructing another scene that features a virtual image of Charon, the mythological ferryman who carries travelers down the underworld river Acheron. Belkina's students already have created a number of virtual coins that travelers can use to tip the ferryman and win passage.

As students with varied interests worked out scenes to be transferred into Maya and Virtools, they relied on sketching as their common mode of communication. The students divided the labor, with Woods' students using storyboards and sketch paper to lay out classical scenes and objects that Belkina's and Godwin's groups then transferred into digital form

David Zielinsky, a programmer in Brady's Visualization Technology Group, joined Woods and three computer science students -- Bart Bressler, Patrick Paczkowski and Stephen Reading -- in doing the bulk of the work with Virtools.

In its current incarnation, the virtual production "Visions of the Underworld" draws primarily from Greek myths. But undergrads are beginning to insert elements from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh -- and plans are in the works to add Norse myths later.

Work on "Visions" began in summer 2005 when a visiting student from Spelman College in Atlanta set the opening scene for Tartarus, the Greek hell, by creating a glowing river of fire. The display imparts a startling illusion of depth and space to the DiVE's claustrophobic confines, as viewers look over the glowing scene from a virtual precipice -- and then plunge headlong into the abyss.

Duke students have since added a number of other creative episodes. In a scene called "Cerberus Gets Distracted by a Cake," for example, pushing a joystick button launches some virtual cakes in the direction of a virtual dog bowl.. If the barking Cerberus gets distracted by the food, viewers get to float safely past him along a forested path.

A different scene borrowing from Gilgamesh requires the joystick operator to knock three times on a virtual door -- which reverberates and creaks open in response -- in order to gain admittance to a fortress guarded by fanciful leggy monsters.

In still another scene, intended to create the illusion of weight in computer-generated objects, a joystick operator strikes virtual balls with a virtual paddle. Onlookers then try to deduce differences in the balls' masses by observing their different flight paths into virtual space.

At the spring 2006 open house, participating undergraduates and their professors got a chance to view, admire, criticize and play with their first year's results.

"It was my first class with the Maya program, and it was really useful learning how to model and animate," said graduating senior Lauren Barry as she emerged from her DiVE session. "We wanted to make something cool that would be fun to do in the DiVE," added a pumped-up Michael Faber, one of Belkina's students who designed the scorpion boat at the end of the Golden Bough scene.

"Very convincing environments can be crafted in Virtools and transferred to the DiVE," said senior Drew Evans, a student who learned the virtual reality software in a fall 2005 independent study project and then worked with Woods' group in the spring. "As the technology improves, almost anything will be possible."

Bart Bressler, who created the "guess their mass" ball game, hopes next year to create a sword fight that would culminate with the severing of Cerberus' heads. As with the ball game, he expects the virtual swords to convey the illusion of weightiness.

He also eagerly anticipates revisiting the DiVE at future open houses as a Duke alumnus. "It would be really cool to see how later students expand on the project, to really see how the whole thing works," he said. "We're just in the early stages right now."

Organizers hope the "Visions of the Underworld" project might become part of the Focus Program for first year undergraduate students, which features interdisciplinary experiences and seminar-sized classes centered around themes in the arts and sciences.