National Science Foundation Awards $1.67 Million Grant to Villanova University for Development of Virtual Reality Facility for Immersive Video Research and Learning

Virtual Reality Facility

VILLANOVA, Pa. – The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $1.67 million grant to Villanova University to develop a virtual reality CAVE facility that uses immersive video for telepresence applications as well as computer-generated graphics for 3D visualization. The grant is the largest NSF research grant ever awarded to the University. Villanova’s CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) will be housed in Falvey Memorial Library; this central campus location will allow the facility to be a university-wide resource, research tool and interactive classroom accessible to all Villanova students and faculty. The interdisciplinary project is under the direction of Frank Klassner, PhD, professor of Computing Sciences and director of the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology (CEET) in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in collaboration with Edmond Dougherty, assistant professor in the College of Engineering, and Darren Poley, interim director of Falvey Memorial Library.

The Villanova CAVE will feature an 18’ by 10’ by 7.5’ high enclosure in which 10-15 viewers can view three-dimensional imagery and immersive data displays. The CAVE will be configurable for applications requiring projections onto three walls and the ceiling, or onto three walls and the floor. Although the CAVE will support use of computer-generated rendered images, Villanova’s CAVE will have a unique development research focus on using immersive video spanning 360˚ horizontally and 120˚ vertically to present interactive real-world environments, with the ultimate goal of presenting them in real time over the Internet. It will also be the first CAVE facility situated in a library setting with reserved time for public access.

“CAVE technology has played a key role in scientific and engineering research since its development in the 1990s, and I believe the time is right to bring its powerful visualization capabilities into more general use,” Klassner said. “The traditional emphasis on using CAVEs to display computer-generated material produces a bottleneck in the creation of material for viewing. Our center’s emphasis in using immersive video of real-world environments in CAVEs will provide for a large variety of applications.”

Added Klassner: “This project will contribute toward establishing a collection of dynamic imagery from locations around the world, not only for scientific and cultural research, but for classroom use and public appreciation as well. Placing the CAVE in a very public library setting is the key, as it will make it as easy to ‘check out’ and share locations as it has been to check out or share books.”

The primary components of this project include the structural CAVE itself, a video camera rig to help capture real-world environments for projection into the CAVE, and software to integrate the CAVE and video camera. The CAVE structure is expected to be completed late in the spring of 2014. While the CAVE is being built, Klassner will lead a team of Computer Science students to design software and network infrastructure to connect immersive video content to the CAVE. Meanwhile, under the direction of Dougherty in the College of Engineering, undergraduate and graduate students will help design a robot platform to hold a spherical immersive video camera and microphone array that will provide observers in the CAVE with interactive immersive telepresence in a real-world location – whether it’s the base of the Grand Canyon, a historic cathedral, or a busy highway.

“Dr. Klassner's work is an example of the creative ways in which technology can enhance learning by creating immersive, experiential teaching environments with applicability across every area of study at Villanova," said Jean Ann Linney, PhD, Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In addition to educational uses, the CAVE will serve as a visualization support tool for a variety of research projects across disciplines at Villanova. Computational geometry, unmanned vehicle design, network reliability, environmental monitoring, heat dissipation modeling, automobile driver response analysis, archaeology, art studies, attention and healthy behavior, and autonomous navigation in rough seas are just a few of the application areas at Villanova that will use the CAVE to enhance investigation of difficult concepts and to remotely study events and views of real-world environments.

“This new NSF grant to Professor Frank Klassner and his interdisciplinary team of faculty to develop a Virtual Reality CAVE facility on Villanova’s campus is the latest example of our University faculty engaged in frontier research,” said Alfonso Ortega, Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Programs. “But unlike research focused universities, Villanova’s talented faculty members will concentrate not only on research innovation at the highest levels, but equally on how those innovations affect and involve the education of our undergraduate students.”

The NSF award is effective Oct. 1, 2013, and the project will run through Sept. 30, 2017. The research will support the participation of graduate and undergraduate students, who will work alongside Klassner and Dougherty on the project.

“Research opportunities for the CAVE facility are virtually limitless,” said Barry Selinsky, PhD, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Dr. Klassner will be working with collaborators interested in diverse topics ranging from understanding how enzymes carry out chemical reactions to measuring how individuals react to extreme visual stimuli. The CAVE will convert many research dreams into realities.”