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One of the key revelations of the seminal 1999 sci-film The Matrix was (spoiler alert) that most of humanity was trapped inside an elaborate virtual world. At the time, the scenario seemed far-fetched, if not wholly outside the realm of possibility. But 16 years later, scientists are getting much closer to replicating reality with an increasingly indistinguishable computer-generated copy. Just take a look at the latest advances from the University of Michigan’s UM3D Lab, which focuses on research into virtual reality, 3D modeling/printing, motion capture, and other emerging technologies.
Since 1997, the university has hosted an immersive virtual reality testing environment in the form of a small (10-foot by 10-foot) room covered with projection walls, which change perspective as someone moves throughout it. But only recently did researchers upgrade this room, called MIDEN (Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus), with the Unreal graphics engine, previously used to produce some of the most detailed and beautiful videogames of all time, from Bioshock Infinite to the Mass Effect series.
MIDEN’s upgrade to the Unreal engine allow the VR testing room to be able to render incredibly lifelike environments, complete with difficult features like plants, water, smoke, and flame. Furthermore, thanks to MIDEN’s tracking system — which relies on stereoscopic glasses and a gaming controller, both festooned with tracking balls — these virtual environments can be made to span out infinitely in all directions, and human testers can not only move freely throughout them, they can manipulate objects (doors, weapons) as well. The results are nothing short of breathtaking, as the above UM3D video shows.
MIDEN virtual reality motion controller (left) and stereo glasses
UM3D says in a press release that the system is designed “not just for gamers, but for those seeking high quality visualizations for research and exploration,” specifically, “studies involving human behavior and environmental effects.” With 2016 shaping up to be the year that consumer virtual reality really comes to the fore, it makes sense that researchers such as UM3D are pursuing even more souped-up versions in dedicated test labs.