Real-Life 'Holodeck' Takes Scientists Out of This World

By: Joe Harrington Email
By: Joe Harrington Email

RENO, NV - You might call it the 'real-life holodeck.' The Desert Research Institute has a lab that can take you just about anywhere you want to go. Imagine standing on another planet, or flying over Walker Lake without a plane. It's all possible in a sophisticated 3d lab that offers complete immersion in a simulated environment.

Known as DRI-6, the lab is a small room -- all six sides are actually screens. Wearing 3d glasses, when you step inside, you are placed into a simulated environment. Projectors create the simulation, and sensors determine where in the environment you are standing. A hand controller helps you navigate your way around.

"The intention is to use this as a scientific instrument to be able to explore environments you can't reach," Tom Jackman, the interim senior director for the Center for Advance Computation, Visualization and Modelling, said.

One such simulation takes users to Victoria Crater on Mars. Using real information compiled by NASA, you can move around the crater -- even seeing the tracks left by one of the Mars rovers.

"I can unrealistically rotate the sun so that it faces down on the planet so you can get a better view," Joe Mahsman, a DRI staff computation and visualization scientist said, as he operated a hand-held controller.

"We can accelerate time when we couple these to simulations," Jackman said. He said that ability helps scientists study the climate and pollution over long time periods.

Jackman said the lab was built with federal funds through a Department of Defense contract. In all, the high-tech room cost more than two million dollars.

Civil support teams may work "to find possible radioactive sources in an environment and that's dangerous to train in real life with actual radioactive sources," Steve Koepnick, a DRI staff visualization scientist, said.

The lab can re-create cities -- hover above, or go down to the sidewalk level. It's a simulation that has engineering applications as well.

"We can actually use our wand to navigate, and actually select objects we'd like to place in the environment," Koepnick said, just before placing some windmills on a simulated Reno hillside.

Koepnick said the room was used to simulate some proposed condo buildings. He said after the 3d simulation showed the condos wouldn't block the view of the mountains, a permit was issued.

The lab, located at DRI, is rare -- the nearest like it is in Iowa.


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