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MU lab presents virtual view

MU lab
Sep. 27, 2009 @ 10:37 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Marshall University's year-old Arthur Weisberg and Family Engineering Laboratories building houses one of the most sophisticated virtual simulation environments of any college or university.

Most people, however, just drive by and see a two-story section of the building along 3rd Avenue and probably assume it's just classroom space. It is, in a sense, but the Virtual Interactive Simulation Environment inside represents technological advances that may be hard for some to fathom.

Viewers, with $400 pairs of 3-D glasses and Google Maps, can see landscapes that have been built all around the world as well as some close to home, such as Pullman Square, Marshall University and various sections of downtown Huntington. Medical researchers can get a close-up look at strands of DNA on a 9-foot-by-17-foot high-definition screen, again in a three-dimensional format.

That's just a few of the things happening in a large section of the engineering labs, said Tony Szwilski, professor and director of the Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Science.

"There is a wow factor," Szwilski said. "But the challenge is how do we have an economic impact. At this stage, it's economic development with businesses and creating jobs."

The job and business development aspect, he said, has tremendous potential in the fields of medical, mining, engineering design, science and sociology. Szwilski also said that by creating the next generation of Internet-based virtual worlds, it opens up the door for businesses that do not yet exist.

He said it is vital that the economic growth happen because of the investment in the technology. All of the equipment costs around $4 million, paid for with an economic development grant to help the region. The biggest piece of that pie is currently being shared with Huntington and eventually Ashland. Huntington city leaders recently sat in on a demonstration using the 3-D Google Map and other programs that allow the students and researchers trained on the system to demolish buildings and build something new.

Szwilski said the urban development aspect is crucial because it will allow cities, entreprenuers and others to plan like never before.

"Hypothetically, how would it look to move the floodwall?" he said of one example of use, referring to the view that would be gained by removing a portion of the floodwall in front of Harris Riverfront Park in downtown Huntington. "And it looks real."

Another potential capability is envisioning possible uses for contaminated brownfield sites.

He said medical groups have come in to look at cells and strands of DNA in a whole different way.

Some of the technology is so new it's only in a theory stage. Among the new equipment is an Organic Motion Stage, which is a markerless motion system that transposes a person's skeletal structure into a computer program.

Researchers are working to combine Organic Motion with Second Life, an online virtual world. As part of the large grant, the team, led by Jack Smith, has created a virtual coal-mining training system.

"We'll be able, in true 3-D sense, to make those training exercises more real," Smith said in an interview in the spring.

The training, as it stands now, is more like a video game in which the trainee sits at the computer and moves an avatar (or a symbol representing the trainee) around through the program. Eventually, Smith and Szwilski envision trainees walking around the Organic Motion stage, leading their avatar through Second Life or another program.

"That's the next level of sophistication," Szwilski said. "Capture that and put into the virtual world.

"All this technology is new, and we are learning at the same rate as other entities around the world," he added.

Professors are currently being trained on the equipment, and Szwilski said workshops and seminars are being planned for later this year and into 2010.

Some marketing will be done at the Create West Virginia Conference. He also said that scheduling is in the works for booths, exhibits and presentations at other conferences and events.

For more information, contact Szwilski at 304-696-5457.

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