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The Warsaw Voice » Other » December 3, 2008
Technology
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Power of Virtual Reality
December 3, 2008   
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The Virtual Reality Center run by the i3D company in the southern city of Gliwice is capable of generating interactive three-dimensional images that help engineers learn to operate complicated machinery, or allow designers to stroll through an aircraft, changing its shape, size and interior in an instant.

The Virtual Reality Center, which is the largest facility of its kind in both Poland and all of Central and Eastern Europe, works for clients such as U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which chose i3D over other companies around the world because the Gliwice facility is capable of creating fully interactive, three-dimensional images of aircraft being designed by the American corporation.

A three-dimensional image offers depth perception for aircraft designers. They can change their technical parameters or interior decoration with just a few clicks of a mouse. One example is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a plane whose production will be launched next year. A virtual model of the plane can be seen at the Virtual Reality Center in Gliwice.

3D technology makes it possible to look at the plane from all sides, go inside, check the seat adjustments, and feel the texture of the upholstery. It is also possible to look into the engine, see how it runs, take it apart and thoroughly examine each component.

Images are projected onto a cylindrical screen that gives the observer the impression of being completely immersed in a world that only exists in computer memories. The screening room with a teleconference system, launched this summer, seats 28 people. The screen, 10 meters long and 3 meters high, can display images with a resolution of 3600 x 1200 pixels.

From fun to business
Virtual reality is for many associated mainly with Imax movies and computer games. But it is also finding an increasing number of business applications.

"Reality becomes virtual-this is the motto of our company," says i3D's Marek Ko¼lak. "The development of technology allows reality to be reproduced better all the time, or even created in the virtual world. Thanks to motion sensors, we can get on the plane, look under the seat, check how the adjustment lever works. Compared with this technology, methods like those using PowerPoint software are simply archaic."

The technology makes it possible to design various objects in a virtual reality, but also learn how to operate machinery, practice surgery, or decorate a room that does not yet exist. This is the future of fields such as industry, medicine, education, tourism, and commerce, Ko¼lak says.

Foreign partners
The i3D company was established in 2001 by engineers from the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice. In 2006, the company opened a "service and excellence" center dealing with interactive visualizations based on EON Professional technology. This was the first such facility in Central and Eastern Europe. It was set up at the Science and Technology Park in Gliwice as a joint project by i3D and its foreign partners. These were EON Reality, a global producer of 3D interactive visualization software, and a consortium of hardware suppliers including projector manufacturer Christie Digital, graphic card producer nVidia, projection screen manufacturer Stewart, and computer giant Microsoft.

i3D works closely with the Silesian University of Technology and plans to set up a Virtual Reality Laboratory together with the school to train top-caliber specialists in this area.

i3D relies on a work force of 18, but plans to create 50 more jobs for programmers and graphic designers by the end of next year.

"I'm confident we are at the threshold of a 3D visualization boom," says i3D chairman Jacek Jźdrzejowski. "In 2006 the penetration rate for this technology in companies was only 1.4 percent; this year it has gone up to 3.5 percent."

Last year i3D held a symposium entitled "Reality is Virtual" to draw the attention of specialists from industry and medicine as well as the scientific community to the opportunities that 3D visualization techniques offer in training people and in designing products and facilities. A similar symposium, entitled "The Natural History of Business," will be held this December.

A world that does not exist
The i3D company creates a virtual reality by developing interactive applications and making use of 3D projection systems. The possibilities for using these applications are diverse. The company offers methods for moving around virtual buildings and facilities whose construction is still at the planning stage. Users can also tour virtual museums and historic buildings; visit historical sites that have been reconstructed in a virtual reality; prepare operating instructions and maintenance manuals for machines requiring complicated procedures; develop training applications to upgrade staff qualifications; create virtual stores; develop company and product presentations for marketing purposes; create product catalogues for use on the internet; and develop simulators to work together with movement tracking systems.

"In all these applications the user has complete control over whatever they are observing," Ko¼lak says. "Looking at a house, for example, they can open a window, turn on the TV, or take a ride in the elevator. Looking at a car, they can use the door handle and get inside. This level of interactivity is especially important for anything that is expensive, hard to access or complicated to show in the real world."

3D methods also work well for equipment that is physically easy to show, but requires complicated operating instructions-for example aircraft turbines. The technology can be used to prepare a maintenance manual for practically any device, Ko¼lak says. "Almost anyone will be able to service complicated mechanisms after they see and perform every activity in the virtual world," he adds. "The possibility of virtual practice eliminates errors in the real world. This is especially important whenever time is of the essence, for example in power plants or various crisis management systems."

Training applications are another example of what 3D images can be used for. "We can make a control panel for almost any equipment," Ko¼lak says. "The equipment will be virtual, but the panel will be real. The future user can gain proficiency without even seeing the real thing. The real equipment does not have to be used unnecessarily and thus wears down less quickly. Training costs can also be reduced substantially."

Virtual museums and operating theaters
The first project handled by i3D was a three-dimensional visualization of a new terminal at Katowice-Pyrzowice Airport. This was followed by other projects, including an application for a virtual tour of the Guido underground mining museum in Zabrze, southern Poland. The company also developed a virtual model of the interior of the Bombardier luxury jet and a training application for an emergency oxygen supply system used during accidents in coal mines. i3D experts also handled an interactive presentation of the Euroterminal International Logistics Center under construction in S³awków in southern Poland.

One of the applications developed by i3D offers a walk outside a cathedral in Porto, Portugal. The virtual model of the cathedral was created on the basis of 30,000 photos. "Of course, it is also possible to design an application allowing people to go inside this cathedral," Ko¼lak says. "The issue of preserving cultural heritage is especially exciting in the context of 3D technology because we can recreate something that no longer exists. We are working on the revival of a Jewish district and synagogue in Lublin, eastern Poland. Based on written sources, pictures and other buildings from the same period, we are 'rebuilding' a nonexistent part of the city that people will be able to walk around. Similarly, we are able to reconstruct the ruins of medieval castles-not just what they looked like, but the conditions of everyday life there."

Apart from handling projects for clients, i3D works on its own projects. One example is the Heart, an interactive 3D model of the heart being developed together with Polish and international scientists. In the first stage of the project, the model will be used to train students, and later to design virtual operations.

The company has also developed an application for developers to design virtual housing estates and decorate homes. The application makes it possible to move around objects and arrange the interior at will.

Touch-free navigation
In addition to supplying applications for use with state-of-the-art hardware, i3D delivers complete projection systems. One such product, previously unknown in Poland, is a screen made from a special kind of plastic film that creates an illusion of objects suspended in midair.

The company is also eyeing technology that enables touch-free navigation whereby an image is projected onto a pane of glass or a specialist 3D monitor, and interaction takes place through finger navigation. i3D also offers autostereoscopic displays allowing viewers to watch 3D visualizations without using special glasses.

3D technologies are still rarely used in business and education, i3D experts say, but they are bound to become more popular soon. There are already information centers, help desks and trade fair stands fitted with this type of projection systems.

Television broadcasters are also preparing to embrace 3D technology. The world's first 3D television has already started broadcasting in Japan, Ko¼lak says. According to the Christie Digital company, a global giant in the manufacture of projectors, next year should see some 8 million 3D TVs sold in the United States.

Ewa Dereń
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