Virtual Reality Research in a Truly Collaborative Environment

Few places in Maine are as unique and innovative as the University of Maine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction Laboratory. More commonly referred to as the VEMI Lab, it is the state’s only virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) research facility.

Virtual reality sounds like something from a science fiction novel, and until recently it was. Early progress into virtual reality was made in the 1990’s, but was stalled for several years due to the limitations of the technology. Fast-forward 20 years and companies like Samsung and Oculus have released virtual reality goggles available to the general public for little more than the price of a high-end smartphone.

The Oculus Rift, the frontrunner in affordable virtual reality gear is available for just $350. The newer Samsung Gear VR is available for just under $400. These prices are significantly more affordable than the previously available technology, which could cost anywhere from $1200-50,000.

However, even though a few games and applications have been been publicly released for the Rift and Gear VR, they are still not practical purchases for the average consumer. One great use for these devices at present is research and development, and that is where virtual reality research facilities like the VEMI Lab come into play.

The lab employs 23 graduate and undergraduate students from a wide variety of disciplines. Richard Corey, the lab’s director of operations, treats all of the students as equals and encourages them to do the same. The amount of respect and responsibility students receive at the lab is based on how dedicated they are to their research, not the level of the degree they are pursuing.

According to Corey, this creates a “truly collaborative environment” and gives the students the opportunity to learn through real-world, hands-on experiences they would not get otherwise. In fact, the executive producer of Pixar will be coming to tour the facility in March of this year.

“He is spending a little more than an hour here,” Corey said when discussing the Pixar executive’s visit at the weekly VEMI Lab meeting, “anybody who wants facetime, you let me know in advance, and you can talk [to him] about what you are doing and where you are with it.”

The lab has expanded exponentially since last year, when the entire operation ran out of a single room in Boardman Hall. Now the lab takes up the top two stories of Carnegie Hall, a building formerly used as an extension of the University’s art department.

Since the move, the VEMI Lab has seen a significant increase in publicity. According to Corey, the lab has seen over 60 tours this year alone with more than 700 people obtaining an opportunity to see the some of technologies in use in the lab.

The Director of Operations at the VEMI Lab, Richard Corey, supports the VR headset while guiding one of the Civil Engineering students touring the lab during November of last year.

The VEMI Lab was not always so popular as it is now. When the lab was getting started it stayed under the radar, which Corey believes allowed it to become what it is today.

“It takes a long time to fully understand the parameters of what we’re building: the software, the equipment, gathering up the ‘troops’ to do what we need to do,” says Corey, “it took about four years to really create this atmosphere of students with this level of respect and trust and drive.”

Now students and professors at the lab are pushing the boundaries of virtual (and augmented) reality technology, as well as discovering ways it can be used to improve everyday life.

One of the primary applications of virtual reality being explored at the University of Maine is its ability to explore and augment the lives of individuals with limited capability to interact with the space around them. Those individuals include people with impaired vision, decreased reaction time, poor hearing, and other physical and sensory inhibitions.

Simulations exploring these areas of understanding are often demonstrated during the many tours given by Corey and the lab’s employees. One such simulation begins with the user viewing a black and white outline of the room around them, but on command the user’s vision can be altered to replicate the effects of cataracts. A cataract is a condition causing the lens of the eye to become cloudy, occurring most often in adults over 40 years old.

What is the benefit of simulating a condition like cataracts? It allows researchers to better understand the visual limitations dealt with by those who have cataracts and other forms of vision impairment. It also gives them an opportunity to explore new ways to deal with impaired sight.

An example of how to change the way individuals with impaired vision deal with the world around them exists within the same simulation described earlier. Pressing another button on the computer running the program makes the room come alive. The walls and objects around the room are outlined in bright yellow, and looking above the door one can see the word “DANGER” in large capital letters.

Richard Corey guides another student while demonstrating a virtual reality simulation intended to research ways to improve spatial awareness for those with impaired vision. In the background a monitor shows what the student is seeing in real time.

Of course, in this situation there is no real danger in traveling through the door beyond reaching the limitations of the virtual reality headset worn by the user. However, the simulation is an excellent example of how virtual reality technology can enhance how one might interact with the space around them.

Another example of how VR can be used to study how we interact with the space around us is a driving simulation, designed by Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR) fellowship recipient Jonathan Cole. This simulation is particularly important in regards to Maine’s growing elderly population. Many changes occur as humans age, but in relation to driving, our reflexes are delayed and the quality of our vision often decreases.

Graduate student and VEMI Lab employee Christopher Bennett explains Jonathan Cole’s driving simulation to onlookers while one of the touring students takes the wheel.

The driving simulation allows Cole and other researchers to study these changes in a safe environment, observing factors such as how quickly the test subjects recognize a stop sign or a turn and how long it takes them to respond to the stimulus.

These are just two of the many projects underway at UMaine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction Lab. Other projects include a virtual representation of proposed wind turbines near Monhegan Island off of Maine’s coast, research into safer living environments for self-sustaining retirees, and collaborative projects with other departments at the University.