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Stony Brook's Reality Deck 'is virtual reality on steroids'

A satellite image of the Earth surrounds viewers

A satellite image of the Earth surrounds viewers at the newly unveiled visualization room at the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology at Stony Brook University. (Nov. 15, 2012) Credit: Daniel Brennan

Wonder what it would be like to stand inside a beating heart? Or atop the world's tallest building, looking down on the city of Dubai?

Stony Brook University's newest computer science feat can almost take you there.

The Reality Deck, a $2-million virtual reality theater, is akin to the fictional Holodeck, by which Starship Enterprise officers on "Star Trek" could find themselves in another place and time.

Stony Brook University scientists believe their technology will be far-reaching and help better detect cancers, build antibiotics, predict climate changes and map the universe.

The 627-square-foot room's four walls are tiled floor-to-ceiling with 416 high-resolution flat-screen monitors, allowing scientists, engineers and physicians to visualize huge amounts of data in a way they've never been able to do before, its Stony Brook creators said.

The resolution, at 1,500 megapixels, or 1.5 billion pixels, is among the highest of any such facility, with the ability to immerse the user in a still or moving image.

"We don't even understand yet what a billion pixels means. There is just a phenomenal amount of data out there, and figuring out how to view it is at the forefront of computer science right now," said Arie Kaufman, chairman of the computer science department and chief scientist of Stony Brook's Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology.

Inside the Reality Deck, you can take a "ride" through the Milky Way or walk to a wall and point out your neighborhood on a flood map of Long Island. The detail is fine enough to give a 20/20 view of the faces in a group photo of all 300 million citizens in the United States.

Another feature is the "infinite canvas," a 360-degree smart screen that changes images according to the location of the viewer walking around the Reality Deck, so the same image is never viewed twice.

Future applications to stream video in real time are in the works, Kaufman said at the Nov. 15 unveiling of the project.

Kaufman, recognized for his research in information technology, visualization and graphics, is perhaps best known as a pioneer in 3-D virtual colonoscopy for colon cancer screening.

The Reality Deck project is the culmination of about a decade of planning and three years of building. It was funded with a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant and a matching $600,000 grant from Stony Brook University.

Its applications are broad, Kaufman said, and include using advanced medical imaging, satellite imaging, architectural design, astronomy and weather mapping data.

"This is virtual reality on steroids," said Stony Brook University provost Dennis Assanis, who said the school expects researchers from all over the world to come to the university to view the project.

Most of all, Assanis said, he hopes the facility will bring together faculty and students from all disciplines on campus. Those studying arts and humanities as well as the hard sciences will benefit, he added.

Scientists often call this area of study "visual analytics," a way of reasoning using visual presentations and interactive interfaces.

"To attack some of society's challenges, you really have to look at them," Assanis said.

More than 20 departments across the Stony Brook campus have expressed interest in using the technology, Kaufman said.

Stony Brook's Reality Deck has five times the resolution of a similar project at Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas at Austin.

In 2008, engineers at TACC built the Stallion, a 328-megapixel tiled-display system that uses 80 monitors covering a single wall, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas school.

Kaufman said he believes it won't be long until private industry builds and markets its own Reality Deck. For now, he and his team aim to get local scientists involved.

Among those interested in using the new facility is Andrei Nomerotski, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory who is working on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a future-generation telescope that will take millions of pictures of the sky with a 3.2-gigapixel camera -- about 200 times the power of a good consumer digital camera.

"It occurred to me that it would be an ideal way to display the images taken with the telescope," Nomerotski said. "There are many possibilities here."





Among the features of Stony Brook University's virtual reality theater:

416 flat-screen displays

1.5 billion pixels of resolution

Immersive, four-wall layout in a 33' x 19' x 10' room with a tiled-display door

Ability to view large gigapixel panoramic images, such as a 45-gigapixel photograph of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a 6-gigapixel infrared telescope view of the Milky Way

High-performance sound system with 22 speakers and four subwoofers

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