McMaster uses simulator to teach comp-sci students integration

A virtual reality simulator recently acquired by McMaster University could help computer science students gain a unique understanding of IT integration issues.

The machine is an enclosed pod the size of a mini-van. It rides on platform that can move a foot in various directions (surge, sway, heave, roll, pitch and yaw) and can trick the eye into experiencing motion with visual cues on a movie screen inside.

Its original intent was as an amusement park ride, said Martin von Mohrenschildt, chair of computing and software in the faculty of engineering, but a series of events led to it being donated to the Hamilton, Ont.-based university for research purposes instead.

The machine was built by a fibreglass company at a cost of about $250,000 as a prototype ride, said von Mohrenschildt. Unfortunately the company that commissioned the project was unable to see it through to completion so it was given to the university rather than let it go to waste.

It arrived bare bones, said von Mohrenschildt, so he custom-wrote an operating system for it using open source software. He then acquired open source flight and driving simulation software to run on the screen and proceeded to piece all the elements together by networking the machine to four PCs. The end result is a machine that effectively mimics the experience of driving a race car or flying a plane by putting the user at the controls and displaying the accompanying visuals from, a first-person persective.

The various computers are responsible for separate tasks, he explained. “You have one computer doing the (graphics) rendering, one computer doing the physics engine, one controlling the platform, and then there’s audio. . . . There’s a lot of real-time synchronization.”

The simulator will be put through its paces in the coming months with about 15 to 16 fourth-year computer students, he said. They will be able to understand how complex systems can be networked together to achieve an end product and will also be able to see the simulation software in action. The project could equally be used as an example of network integration or as means to encourage budding video game developers, said von Mohrenschildt.

Like an amusement park ride there are safety considerations for its users, said von Mohrenschildt. It’s not recommended for pregnant women or for anyone with a history of epilepsy or heart problems.

But von Mohrenschildt insists the device is safe and could be used as an environment to test the effects of motion sickness and other commonplace reactions to movement.

The university’s psychology department has expressed an interest in using the device to test phobias, said von Mohrenschildt. The machine is capable of simulating the experience of driving into a narrow tunnel, for example, which could be used to mimic the effects of claustrophobia.

McMaster has used virtual reality in the past to test the psychological affects of driving – albeit on a smaller scale. For example, Hong-Jin Sun, an associate professor in the psychology department, uses a machine that looks like the front half of a car to examine how people judge distances as a part of everyday driving: whether they rely on visual cues for distance or try the ascertain the speed of other cars or people on the road when making decisions about changing lanes, pulling into traffic, etc.

The experiments also take other factors like age into account. Young people may be more likely to take driving risks than older people, said Sun.

“We’ve also just started to talk about clinical populations – for example, some people are ‘motion blind,’” he said. “(They) may pass an eye exam, but eye exams are only static images. They may lack the ability to detect motion.”

Sun said that his research could become more in-depth by moving some of the experiments to von Mohrenschildt’s virtual reality device, where the driving experience is more immersive, more “real,” yet still safe.

According to von Mohrenschildt, the computer science and psychology departments are discussing how they might collaborate future projects that would involve both the machine and the mind.


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