Virtual Immersion

July 1, 2008

Seeing is believing at university's high-tech virtual reality center

Imagine a world where architects can venture into buildings that no longer exist. The military can freely explode thousands of Humvees. Researchers can visualize data from up to 22,000 human genes in living color, and building owners can inspect the interior of industrial furnaces to make them more efficient.

It may sound like a somewhat strange, unorganized dream, but it's real—or at least it looks real. The Iowa State C6, a virtual reality room at Iowa State University in Ames, IA, offers all these capabilities and more. Located in ISU's Howe Hall, the 10- by 10- by 10-foot facility is designed to immerse users in images and sound for a variety of types of research.

"You can't blow up real Humvees to test things; you can't have roadside bombs explode Humvees for testing, so we can blow up as many Humvees in here as we want, because they're free," says Kevin Teske, systems support specialist with ISU.

In response to aging and outdated technology, the university recently put the 8-year-old facility through an intense renovation process to produce better resolution, higher definition, and a more realistic environment, enabling better research and maintaining the university's position as a world leader in virtual reality. With projection screens on all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling, users are immersed from all directions in pictures and sound for a variety of applications.

Iowa State C6



AV BUDGET: $3.5 Million


  • Brooks Borg Skiles Architecture
  • Engineering LLP
  • Mechdyne Corp.

Quotes from the Judges:

"Of all of the 3-D projects in the country, this is one of two that have the entire industry's attention because of the advanced visualization technologies that are employed here. Nobody else has put 24 Sony SXRD projectors in one place before, and nobody's got this kind of computing horsepower hooked up to that many projectors. So for me, as a designer of these kinds of spaces, I have a lot of respect for the people that put it together."

"If it actually creates the environments that they want to do, it literally can change a lot of spaces in architecture, and this is where technology really is going to cross the path someday."

Product LIst: Iowa State C6:

  • ATI1604 Four-channel power amplifiers
  • Audio Technologies BU400 balanced-unbalanced converter
  • Extron BUC102 audio balanced-unbalanced converters
  • Hewlett Packard xp9300 workstations
  • JBL Professional Control 25AV loudspeakers
  • Logical Solutions 3.2 miles of optical fiber, 8.1 surround sound
  • M&K S-85TV speakers, MX-5000 MK II THX subwoofer
  • M-Audio Delta 1010 computer multichannel audio interface
  • Mechdyne Corp. Beacon projection shuttering technology, optical blending technology
  • Nvdia Quadro FX 4500 graphics cards (now upgraded to 5500)
  • Peavey Electronics MediaMatrix X-Frame 88 audio DSP mixer/processor, MM-8802 audio mixer/processor interface, A/A-8P audio pre-amplifier
  • Sony Electronics SRX-S105 SXRD projectors
  • Stewart Filmscreen 10-foot by 10-foot rear projection screens

Want to learn more about this project? Register for the webinar today. This event is free.

The difference between the new equipment and the old "is like putting on your glasses in the morning," says James Oliver, the director of the ISU Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC).

Says associate director Stephen Gilbert, "The C6 is an incredible display system, enabling a variety of applications: engineering analyses of systems like airplanes at a life-size scale, medical visualization of body scans for easier surgical planning, complex high-dimensional data exploration, and immersive architectural walkthroughs of high-resolution models of classic structures such as the Taj Mahal, as well as of new structures in the planning stages."

With one of the world's highest resolutions, the C6 paves the way for countless possibilities for the future of architecture. Gilbert says that technology like that of the C6 could someday allow people to meet in virtual worlds much more than collaborative software such as Breeze and GoToMeeting can currently provide. "Imagine Breeze on steroids," he says. "More immersive collaboration is one of our biggest goals, and the C6 provides those kinds of capabilities."

Putting the Puzzle Together
The C6 technology was installed by design consultant and systems integrator Mechdyne Corp. of Marshalltown, IA. According to Jeff Brum, the company's vice president of marketing and business development, one of the biggest challenges with the C6 renovation was fitting a full array of new technology-from projectors to speakers and workstations-into a space that couldn't be expanded. The design team had to work within the dimensions of the existing facility, which sits within a unique architectural enclosure. The enclosure consists of a four-sided pyramidal form on a horizontal axis intercepting an elliptical cone on a vertical axis. Designed to resemble a tornado, it presents an impressive first impression for VRAC visitors and users.

"When you walk in and you see this large, very reflective architecturally designed enclosure for what is—a world-leading virtual reality center—it has a real impact on visitors," Brum says.

The inability to alter that enclosure forced designers to fit all of the new C6 technology into a space that was originally designed for a smaller, simpler system. "It was definitely like playing Tetris," says Gilbert. "It was a challenge, but you know, we're engineers here, so that's a fun thing."

The nearly $5 million renovation, made possible by a U.S. Department of Defense appropriation through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, included an array of new projectors, screens, speakers, workstations, and graphics cards, as well as specialized technology. Designers used six screens rather than four, which is the standard for many virtual reality rooms, to create a full 360-degree visual experience. The visual environment is paired with a surround sound system and a 3-D tracking system, creating a highly immersive experience for the users. Four 10- by 10-foot rear-projection, soft vinyl translucent screens make up the walls of the C6. A fifth screen serves as the ceiling, requiring projection from above. The floor consists of a 2,000-pound, 2 ¾-inch-thick optically correct acrylic slab capable of supporting seven people, with a piece of vinyl material that sticks electrostatically to the slab, allowing images from the projectors below to appear on the floor.

"In the new C6, it's totally wireless," says Teske. "You walk in, the rear screen closes behind you, and the tracking system is wireless, so the experience is much more immersive, much less distracting."

Blending In
The method of projection used in the C6 is what creates the immersion experienced by users. The system uses 24 Sony SXRD 5,000-lumen projectors each with 4096x2160 native resolution. Because the screens are large and square format, each requires four projectors, which are stacked on top of each other in six sets. To create stereoscopic images, the top and bottom halves of each screen each have two projectors, one for the right eye and one for the left. Mechdyne's patented Beacon™ electronic shuttering system, placed in front of each projector, rapidly alternates between open and closed to separate the projected images into left and right eye viewpoints. Only one eye at a time sees the image on the screen, but because the switching happens at 80 times per second, per eye, the human brain is able to fuse the two viewpoints together in one sharp, depth-enhanced image. Projectors that overlap are optically blended to provide a seamless transition. Optical blending was required because no electronic blending can accommodate the signal bandwidth. In the final blended format, the total resolution equals just over 200 million pixels.

Though carefully selected for their high resolution, the Sony projectors were designed for digital cinema with a frame rate of 24Hz, which was too low for the graphics imagery that ISU wanted to create. In response to a request from the design team, Sony increased the frame rate to 60Hz to make the projectors PC-compatible for virtual environment use.

Prior to the installation, the designers knew that the projectors would cause some HVAC complications. While ventilation for the machine room housing the computers was specified in the design, the projectors emit a significant level of heat that exceeded the capacity of the existing system—a fact initially overlooked by the university and the design plan. In response, the design team developed a custom HVAC configuration that employs a 30-ton cooling unit and special ventilation hoods to draw the hot air off the projector stacks, returning the conditioned air to the environment through a perforated, elliptical register installed around the periphery of the base of the C6 enclosure. Though the design and install of the augmented HVAC system impacted the project timeline, teamwork between the university facilities group, Mechdyne, and VRAC resulted in a functional solution that fit within the existing light-tight shell.

The Driving Force
Because each of the 24 projectors requires four separate graphic inputs, the C6 had to be driven by a workstation capable of supporting such technology. The Mechdyne team, led by Matt Szymanski, vice president of products in the software division, installed a 96-channel workstation cluster—one of the largest in the world—made up of 48 computers, each with two graphics outputs. A 49th workstation serves as the master node that holds the application and interaction software. The projectors are controlled via Ethernet and are about 175 feet from the workstations, requiring connection via 3.2 miles of fiber-optic DVI cables for noise-free data transfer.

ISU's new C6 setup ensures that many of the components of the system can be easily replaced if needed, unlike the old system, which was "expensive, unwieldy, and hard to maintain," Teske says. "If we have a problem with the image generator [computer cluster], for instance, we can upgrade components or replace a node without being tied to a proprietary vendor and paying who-knows-how-much to move up to the next level."

The completed project not only gives ISU a unique recruiting edge, but it also keeps the school at the forefront of technological advances. Says Oliver, "Seeing is going to be believing. This upgrade will enhance our ability to amplify the creativity and productivity of people. It will help us build on the center's record as a world leader in virtual reality. And it's one more way Iowa State can be the best at putting science and technology to work."

Brandy Huseman ([email protected]) is new products editor at ARCHI-TECH.

Want to learn more about this project? Register for the webinar today. This event is free.

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