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Virtual reality helps companies develop new technologies


Though it’s not quite the holodeck of the U.S.S. Enterprise of “Star Trek” fame, the Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University is leading to some applications that seem as if they belong in the 23rd century.

Some parts that are being manufactured at the John Deere Des Moines Works in Ankeny, for instance, began as virtual prototypes that engineers could walk around and manipulate. Within a few years, Deere engineers hope to design entire pieces of farm machinery from the ground up using virtual reality simulators, cutting engineering costs by avoiding the time and expense required to build numerous protoypes.

“Without building hardware, we can simulate in a virtual environment a part, a group of parts, almost up to a complete machine, to understand the fit-up and interaction between parts,” said Gary Warnsholz, a project engineer at the Des Moines Works. “It allows not just one person, but several people, to be in the virtual environment and look at it at the same time.”

Founded in 1990, the Virtual Reality Applications Center is an interdisciplinary research center administered by ISU’s Institute for Physical Research and Technology, using seed funding from the Carver Trust and the university.

In its earliest days, the VRAC was focused primarily on engineering applications, but has since evolved into a facility that touches nearly every school on the campus, said Jim Oliver, the center’s director.

“We’re one of the most transdisciplinary centers in the country,” he said. “We’ve got over 30 faculty from nearly every college in the university.”

From testing architectural designs to manipulating the intricate structures of molecules to assemble prototypes of new drugs, the technology gives experts in numerous fields the ability to view problems from the inside out.

“What we’re really good at here is exposing what we call domain experts to the possibilities of immersive technology,” Oliver said. “You provide a demonstration, and the light bulbs start to go on.”

Epidemiology experts, for instance, have used virtual reality simulation models to study the spread of animal diseases and the effects as various parameters are changed.

“Any problem in which you’ve a spatially varying information over time, like an epidemic, are particularly illuminating when you can be immersed in it,” he said.

One unique aspect of the VRAC’s approach is the use of open-source software programs for working with virtual reality applications. One program, called VR Juggler, allows companies to turn nearly any desktop program into an immersive application.

“What it enables us to do as researchers is to get these domain experts up to speed in virtual reality very quickly,” Oliver said. “That’s been a huge boon for us. Plus it’s been a major advantage to companies like Deere & Co. If you build (an application) on top of a common infrastructure, it’s a much more palatable challenge to maintain.”

Infiscape Corp., an Ames-based start-up company, hopes to capitalize on the growing support needs of companies that are using virtual reality technology.

“What we provide for these companies is the ability to support the software for them — get it running for them and enable them to use it long term,” said Allen Bierbaum, one of Infiscape’s founders and a doctoral student at ISU. “We can also provide customization so it fits their needs better,” he said. “We also do software development for companies, both for demonstrations and everyday applications. We see a good deal of work and growth possibility there.”

The company, which now operates out of the four founder’s homes, expects to locate to the ISU Research Park within the next year. It currently has a mix of 12 full- and part-time employees, and hopes to expand to a workforce of 20 people within the next three years.

Bierbaum said it wouldn’t have been possible to form the company without the expertise the university has within the emerging virtual reality field.

Though Deere has several of its own virtual reality centers, being relatively close to ISU’s facility has been an advantage for the manufacturer, Warnsholz said.

“We take advantage of the expertise they have up at Iowa State, utilizing some of the work they’ve done to really make the virtual reality a tool we can use in the manufacturing environment,” he said. “And we’ve brought them real-life industry problems we can work with them on to bring that into their programs. Some students have written their graduate theses on these applications and the programs they’ve written for the virtual environment.”

So far, Deere has built some assemblies at its Ankeny plant using virtual reality design, but the company hasn’t yet gotten to the point of designing an entire machine using the technology.

“It’s probably out there a few years,” Warnsholz said. “It’s something we’ve recognized the benefits of so far, and we’re looking to expand its use in the future.”

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