Engineers at Colorado State University Develop Virtual Reality Computer for a World of Practical Uses

Engineers at Colorado State University are developing a virtual reality computer system which will help teach users to perform surgery, drive tanks and build better cars.

Tom Chen and Peter Young, professors in the department of electrical engineering at Colorado State, are developing a computer system which combines 3-D images with a realistic sense of touch. Chen and Young two of the few engineers in the United States who are working to integrate the two senses in a computer system. Their multi-sensory system will allow people in medical, military and manufacturing fields to practice skills and build prototypes in a realistic environment.

"An important application of this technology will be as an educational tool," said Young. "The system will be invaluable for teaching. It provides a low-cost way to give students an experience that’s very realistic and applies directly to real world applications."

The multi-sensory system includes a display screen of 3-D images and a robotic arm which becomes an extension of the user’s own hand. When the user moves the arm, a point on the computer screen corresponds precisely to the user’s movements. The user can pick up, rotate, turn over and assemble objects with a virtual hand. Through the robotic arm, the user can feel texture, pressure and resistance which correspond to the 3-D on-screen images. Sounds also will correspond to on-screen activity.

"This system lets people learn and practice dextrous skills on a computer, then transfer the skills to real life," said Chen. "The brain synthesizes input from all the senses when it is learning a new skill. In order for the brain to believe what is happening, it must have consistent input from all senses. The more closely sight corresponds to feel, the more readily virtual experiences will be memorized and transferred to real life."

The system is being customized with a variety of robotic arms and images for use in many fields. Chen and Young are working with representatives from medical schools, the United States military, cable television companies and the auto industry to determine special needs.

In the medical field, the system will provide a safe, inexpensive way to practice techniques without the use of an actual patient or cadaver. The system will assist future doctors and nurses and allow practicing medical professionals to stay abreast of the newest techniques. Users will be able to perform virtual exams and virtual surgery, and tie patients back together with virtual sutures. The technology will allow users to pick up a virtual scalpel, perform procedures on realistic 3-D images and feel the textures and resistance characteristic of various layers of tissue and bone.

Doctors training for emergency field work in the military will be able to practice treating highly traumatic wounds which rarely are seen off the battlefield. Other military applications for the technology include training troops to use machinery, visualize battlefields and practice driving vehicles.

The system also will save the auto industry and other manufacturing industries time and money. Manufacturers will be able to build multiple prototypes on the computer screen, which will bypass the costly process of assembling every prototype with actual materials. Engineers will be able to evaluate each detail down to the paint texture. Only promising prototypes will need to be constructed with actual materials.

"The multi-sensory technology is inexpensive when compared to the cost of building actual prototypes or using flight simulators and cadavers," said Chen. According to Chen, software and hardware for the system will cost about $2,000 and robotic machinery will cost about $15,000.