McMaster uses simulator to teach comp-sci students

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

The machine is an enclosed pod the size of a mini-van. It rides on a platform that can move one 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.

The company that commissioned the project was unable to see it through to completion, so it was given to the university rather than let 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.

The various computers are responsible for separate tasks, he said. “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 by about 15 to 16 fourth-year computer students, said von Mohrenschildt. 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 a means to encourage budding video game developers, he said.

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