Lost in a Virtual World

Alex-2016 Alex Leave a Comment

Every spring semester, towards the end of February, USC’s entire Viterbi school of engineering comes together to celebrate engineering in a spectacular week-long celebration known as E-Week. In honor of E-Week, I would like to celebrate my own achievements, and neat research, in the engineering world, particularly a research project I just started working on this semester. Over the past several weeks, I have been lost in a virtual world, a world my research team created!

The research project’s official title is human building interaction within virtual immersive environments. Personally, I like to refer to the project as simply VR, or Virtual Reality, and I jokingly often tell my research partners that we are created the dystopia envisioned in the movie The Matrix. Regardless of the societal impact our project has, I have enjoyed using a software called 3DMax to create, and recreate, buildings and specific rooms. Currently, the research team is developing the landscape of our lead professor’s, Professor Berecik’s, office. Using the coding language Python, we hope to make the room interactive. For example, I, as a virtual Alex, should have the ability to flick the light switch on and off, and the virtual room’s lighting and shadows should reflect those changes. As the team develops the virtual rooms and writes the interactive code, the team has started preliminary studies on USC students, many of whom are my friends. While I do not want to give away too much of the experiment’s details (if the reader does decide to participate in the study, we would rather not have any experimental bias), the experiment deals with the participants’ reactions to certain stimuli in the virtual environment. From these reactions, the team and I can determine how the participants would behave in the real world, allowing us to draw conclusions and give recommendations on how more efficient buildings can be constructed.

The virtual reality experience itself is mind-boggling. To completely immerse myself in the virtual world, I used the XBox Kinect to track my movements, and the Oculus Rift, a headset similar to large goggles, brought the world directly to my eyes and prevented me from seeing any of the outside, real world using my peripheral vision. Oculus Rift also tracked the movement of my head. Therefore, when I moved my head up, the virtual world moved up with my head, making it seem as if I was actually looking toward the virtual room’s ceiling. After a few seconds of motion sickness, I could move about Professor Berecik’s virtual office without a problem and began to notice the intricate details of the room. Formulas from that day’s office hours session were still written on the virtual white board, and baby pictures of Professor Berecik’s daughter stood clearly on her desk, like a real photo frame. Even when I sat down on her chair, I could read a document left open on her computer screen. I almost felt like I was in Professor Berecik’s actual office.

Granted, the design of one USC professor’s office will not change the world. But this is just the first step. Imagine if entire buildings, or highways, or spacecraft were designed. The virtual reality work we are doing at USC could revolutionize the video game industry and how people view recreation. Virtual reality technologies could aid in the training of astronauts, soldiers, and fighter pilots, saving the United States government millions of dollars and several thousand military lives. Virtual reality could be used to conduct expensive or potentially dangerous scientific studies without cost or danger to the research team. To me, my research work is not just human building interaction within virtual immersive environments. My research is about getting lost in a virtual world and, in the process, discovering solutions that could solve humanities biggest problems.

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