A team from Brigham Young University in the United States have developed a low-cost portable immersive visualisation system suitable for professional use by engineers, which could help in assessing and addressing natural disasters.

VuePod dramatically reduces cost of 3D immersive visualisation

Faculty and students at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah have been working for the last year on a groundbreaking project, the VuePod. The results of their research were set out in a paper entitled ‘Mobile, Low-Cost, and Large-Scale Immersive Data Visualization Environment for Civil Engineering Applications’, recently published in the Journal of Computing in Civil Engineering. At first glance the system looks like an advanced video game with a large panel divided into twelve high definition monitors, plus 3D glasses and a Wii controller. Nothing very revolutionary there. However, the innovative aspect of the VuePod system is its simplicity and efficiency. While this is certainly not the first 3D immersive visualisation environment to be developed, it is the first that has been put together using commercial off-the-shelf components. As a result, whereas some current systems cost as much as $10 million to build and maintain, Brigham Young’s VuePod cost much less than 1% of that sum, working out at just $30,000.

Basically the VuePod allows users to visualise a highly detailed environment in three dimensions. “The images are created by point data from aircraft equipped with ‘lidar’ – i.e. like radar but using laser beams. The lidar scans the landscape and records millions of data points that are then viewed as an image on the VuePod. Point data can also be created from stitched-together photographs taken from low-cost drones,” explains a BYU news release.

By gathering data on a natural or urban area on a regular basis, the researchers have been able to detect the changes taking place over time, which they might otherwise not have noticed. Advanced visualisation technology, if available at this much lower price tag, could be a tremendous help to scientists and engineers going forward. One very concrete example is that it would be far easier to monitor how highways are standing up to strains and the ravages of weather, or subsiding and cracking, over time.

Another area where low-cost immersion technology could help is in providing assistance in emergency situations. In a natural disaster situation, especially in the aftermath of an earthquake, it would be relatively easy to set up the VuePod immersion system quickly and then launch drones in order to find out how the various areas have been affected. Somewhat similar systems based on satellites or robots have already been invented but setting them up entails all kinds of logistical headaches. BYU civil engineering professor Dan Ames, who is supervising the VuePod project, believes that even more can still be done to make immersion technologies more affordable. “We want whoever reads this paper to be able to build a better system than we built,” he underlined.

By Romain Chapron