Virtual reality software used by scientists at the University of California, Davis, to study everything from earthquakes to molecular biology in a 3-D “cave” can now run on some off-the-shelf gaming VR headsets. Instructions and downloads are available online.
For more than 10 years, the Keck Center for Active Visualization in Earth Sciences (KeckCAVES) at UC Davis has allowed researchers to build 3-D, interactive models of places they cannot visit in reality.
A medical researcher can use virtual reality to walk around — or go into — a 3-D image of a skull from a patient’s CT scan. A geologist can walk around the landscape of a massive landslide and make precise measurements. A seismologist can watch a sequence of earthquakes and take precise measurements of depth and distance.
These 3-D renderings of data come to life within a Mechdyne CAVE — a commercially available virtual reality system — on the third floor of the UC Davis Earth and Physical Sciences Building.
But now researchers are no longer limited to exploring virtual renderings of their data on campus. The game changers, so to speak, are the widely available virtual reality headsets made for gaming.
“We can now run our software on the gaming headsets,” said Oliver Kreylos, a software developer and research associate for the program. “That means that nonexperts can set up a full virtual reality system to use our applications the way they were meant to be used.” Currently, the software can run on the HTC Vive headset.
KeckCAVES founded with $1 million grant
The idea for the KeckCAVES originated when Louise Kellogg, then chair of the UC Davis Department of Geology, wanted to solve some of the challenges of working with complex three- and four-dimensional data. In 2004 she received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to create the KeckCAVES. Kreylos, a postdoctoral researcher with the computer science department, was already developing visualization software and began working on the KeckCAVES.
The underlying computer operating system Kreylos developed to use with the hardware of the CAVE is known as the Virtual Reality User Interface, or Vrui. Some of the applications that use this operating system have names like “3D Visualizer,” “LiDAR Viewer” (a viewer for LiDAR data), and “Nanotech Construction Kit,” which can build models of molecules in midair.
Kreylos credits this open-source software — developed through an ongoing collaboration of UC Davis computer scientists and earth scientists — as being key to the success of KeckCAVES.
“CAVE hardware was relatively common, with maybe over a hundred systems worldwide, around a decade ago. But CAVE hardware by itself is pretty useless, which is why most of them were never successful,” said Kreylos. “It is the combination of CAVE hardware and our visualization software that makes the complete system work.”
With gaming headsets, researchers can now download the free Vrui software and applications and create their own virtual reality environments without the need for expensive projectors and screens.
“It’s not quite like being in a CAVE but it works well. And it can be used anywhere,” said Kreylos. Instructions and software are available at Kreylos’ blog.
Video: Kreylos uses a headset for virtual reality construction