Technical students create virtual reality system

Taylor’s Engineering department gives students countless opportunities to put their course knowledge to work, but one of the most important ways is through their junior-senior capstone project. Engineering students spend three semesters researching, designing, developing, producing and communicating about a major project. This year, that project was a complex running interface for virtual reality

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-simulated three-dimensional environment that can be interacted with using wearables or hand-held devices. The goal of any virtual reality system is to make the user feel completely immersed in the digitally simulated world, to feel like they are really there. Virtual reality is used in gaming and a wide variety of training applications, including for the military and workplace safety.

Virtual reality systems have been used for training purposes since the 1970s. In the 1990s, consumer products appeared on the market. But a problem persists in VR systems: the inability to create an experience that truly replicates natural walking and running in a virtual space. While there are several systems that allow a user to move their legs, they do not provide a natural walking sensation and can cause disorientation and nausea. As a result, most systems today use “teleportation” to allow the user to move around in the virtual world. In this approach, the user points to a new location in the virtual space and clicks on a handheld device, and their perspective “teleports” directly to the new location.

The loop interface

The past two years 11 Engineering and two computer technology students have been working on a new approach to walking in virtual reality. They wanted to create a VR system that was completely immersive and created a deeper virtual experience, where you could walk infinitely in the virtual world without fear of hitting a wall in the real world.

The VR interface, called “New Worlds”, is located in an Engineering lab in the Euler Science Complex. The system is a first-generation prototype designed to prove their ideas. To keep costs and complexity down, this prototype is a simplified version of what they envision for the final system and can only be walked forwards and backwards. Turning left and right and climbing up and down is not possible with this prototype.

New Worlds consists of four major subsystems: Physical Interface, User Tracking, Controls and Safety.

The physical interface consists of: two mobile footrests mounted on long rails† The soles of the feet move quickly underfoot as the user walks or jogs. These soles act as the walking surface for the user, switching between forward (to stay underfoot) and back (to simulate the ground) as a person steps. The pucks roll along rails that provide smooth, low-friction movement along a single axis.

The User Tracking Subsystem collects information about the user’s condition: tracking the position and speed of the user’s feet, detecting foot contact with the foot pucks, tracking the user’s position in the system workspace, and communicating this data to the subsystem Control.

The Control Subsystem: Convert the user tracking data into motor control commands to achieve a user experience that feels like natural walking and running. To achieve this, the subsystem ensures that the foot pucks are always underfoot and that they keep the user within the physical confines of the system. To provide an immersive experience, the subsystem must consider the nuances of human movements, including positive and negative acceleration, different gaits, and stride deviations due to mid-step decisions.

finally, the Security subsystem monitors the other subsystems for errors or failures. In the event that a subsystem has a problem or the user starts to fall, the security subsystem shuts down New Worlds to protect the user.

The consequences

New Worlds is an ambitious and exciting project with real-world applications. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for students to learn and grow.

“The best education is one that requires the application of learned theoretical principles to a real-world problem,” said John Pugsley ’22. “We worked on achieving a difficult goal, applied classroom principles, and learned a lot more along the way.”

With so many complex, interacting parts, this VR project was ambitious from the start, and students faced many challenges in the process.

It’s hard to believe that you’re so close to finishing part of the project to realize there’s still something you’ve missed, so there’s more work to be done,” says Kaylee Bozarth ’22. “This happened a lot with figuring out the foot tracking calibration. There were so many little details that caused problems.”

Still, the team’s tenacity and diverse skillset brought it together. In addition to the technical application of their technical knowledge, working as a team taught them how to divide work, communicate effectively, and maintain team morale when dealing with challenges.

I learned a lot about working as a team to achieve something really cool. It was great to see how everyone’s talents could work together so well. If I was struggling with something, there was always someone I could turn to for help,” Bozarth said.

Creating a virtual world

In addition to the 11 Engineering students who worked on creating the running interface using their skills in electrical, mechanical and computer engineering, the two Computer Science students created a virtual world linked to the system.

Because the system is limited to moving in one direction, the options for possible virtual worlds were somewhat limited. But the computer science students came up with the creative idea of ​​a mine shaft themed game that puts the whole system to work.

“You’re in a narrow mine shaft with flaming torches, which you can pick up and hold,” said Dr. Peter Staritz, an associate professor of engineering who oversaw the project. “At some point the tunnel opens and you walk on a narrow bridge over a river of lava. Then you lift stones out of the way to get out of the cave.”

Beyond the lab

Using VR for gaming is fun, but the team sees uses for this system that go far beyond entertainment. Staritz wants this technology to be used to teach soldiers how to clear buildings of enemy combatants.

“Cleaning up buildings is one of the most dangerous jobs in the military and one of the most difficult to train for,” Staritz said. “It’s also hard to replicate this stressful environment in real life. Ultimately, we want to adapt the soles and rails to allow for more complex movements that enable this type of training.”

Bozarth will graduate next year, with the aim of eventually becoming a professor of technology himself and guiding students through other groundbreaking technical projects. Teagan Heinger, who was also a member of the student team, plans to use his engineering experience to solve problems in the construction industry.

“Every phase of this project, from design to testing to machining, has been amazing. My favorite part is the 3D CAD (Computer-Aided Design) design that I worked on from start to finish,” he said.

Turn your technical passion into reality

Taylor’s Engineering program gives you the skills to design and build advanced technology and to solve real-world problems as a student. Get started now plan a campus visit† You’ll get to see our labs, meet faculty and students, and find out if Taylor’s Engineering program is for you.

The Engineering team would like to express special thanks to the Women’s Giving Circle who has funded this work for the past two years.

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