Program helps students get real with virtual reality


Raymond Tse is getting a taste of reality -- well, virtual reality.

Three days a week, the 17-year-old Howard High School senior straps on a headset at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel. With a high-powered computer and graphics software, Raymond designs three-dimensional images that are projected into the headset.

The Columbia student's foray into the computer field known as virtual reality is part of an APL mentoring program that has 14 students, including nine from Howard County, studying everything from rock climbing to asteroids.

"You just can't teach science from a textbook these days. It's going too fast," said Connie Finney, who coordinates the mentoring program. "Schools can't do it all. With this program, kids come away saying, 'Now I know why I'm studying physics.' "

In Raymond's case, that means working in APL's "Holodeck," a small office filled with computers, video mixers and miniature television monitors that was named for the room on the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

On that show, the Holodeck was filled with images of real-looking people in realistic settings, all of them generated by a computer.

At APL, virtual reality requires a headpiece that has two video cameras and two miniature TV screens inside. People can see the room they are in, as well as fuzzy stereoscopic images generated by a computer and projected into the headset.

"It's not 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' but it's the first step," said John Sadowsky, a senior mathematician at APL and principal investigator for APL's virtual reality research.

Virtual reality technology was developed about 30 years ago and now has become popular in the video game industry. Black-and-white headsets of the type used in APL's studies initially were used to help people with vision problems.

Researchers at Hopkins and at such places such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been studying ways to use virtual reality for medical and scientific purposes.

At APL, which receives the bulk of its funding from the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, Mr. Sadowsky is studying ways to use the three-dimensional technology to simulate military combat situations.

For example, virtual reality would let commanders sit at a table with other military leaders and watch images of airplanes, ships and soldiers maneuver on and over the battlefield.

Mr. Sadowsky said he also would like to use the technology for classroom teaching, saying that students who have difficulty understanding geometric shapes might learn better if they can see the shapes in a three-dimensional form. The devices also could be used to simulate historical events.

"It's fun to put on a head-mount display and play it like a game," Mr. Sadowsky said. "It's going to help all students."

Raymond, who has a home computer and two video game entertainment systems, is working to develop virtual reality technology, rather than just play with it. A self-described "video game freak," he spends three hours a day, three days a week working in APL's Holodeck, earning school credits.

So far, he has created his own virtual room, complete with decorative carpeting, a desk and a chair, using the "C" computer language program to produce the graphics.

Like the images produced by most virtual reality equipment these days, Raymond's are rough around the edges. But he's hoping to refine his skills so that he can design an airplane fighter that could be used in APL's battlefield simulation.

The resident of Columbia's Long Reach village has become so hooked on computers that he plans to attend the University of Maryland College Park to study computer science and he intends to do research in virtual reality when he graduates.

"Doing the design work isn't like playing video games," Raymond said. "It tends to get boring, but after you make the design and see it run you feel a sense of satisfaction."

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