Shoot-outs go smokeless with VR
Remember Harry Callahan strolling through the pop-up target range in the second Dirty Harry movie blasting everything in sight? Researchers at Sandia National Labs have taken the powder out of the training mix with VRaptor, a virtual reality hostage rescue simulator. Both mechanical and software systems are designed to hone the skills of law enforcement officials who must make split-second, good-guy/bad-guy identifications while weighing levels of threat and resistance (unlike in Hollywood, officers of the law are usually required to take 'em alive, if possible). However, Sandia researcher Dan Shawver points out that VRaptor permits subtle interactions of multiple human and computer-generated participants within a shared environment. Notes project leader Sharon Stansfield: "It's very much like a flight simulator. Shoot houses allow agents to use real guns to fire at mannequins, but the mannequins don't do anything, they just sit there." One scenario, constructed from FBI input, depicts a sparsely furnished apartment with four VR characters. Trainees rush the room after setting off a (virtual) concussion grenade. Human participants are represented as avatars, with back and hand sensors determining movement. Unlike a video game, there are no "levels" for participants to progress to. Unlike real-life, there is a reset button so failures are not catastrophic. For more information on VRaptor, call Sharon Stansfield at (505) 844-1396, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
New goggles get more stuff in your face
University of Rochester graduate students in upstate New York liken the "augmented reality" goggles they helped develop to X-Ray vision glasses (like those available from comic books), and you can't see through walls or people's clothes with theirs either. In actuality, the computer scientists and students use computers and cameras to mesh views from different perspectives into one scene. The device permits a visible object, such as a wall, to appear with a number of complimentary images, such as an infrared view or CAD files of the wall's interior. James Vallino, a UR graduate student working on the project, says potential applications can be found in the military, medical, maintenance, and entertainment industries. In the medical field, for instance, surgeons wearing the goggles would have access to MRI scans superimposed over the real-field view. Challenges to fully realizing the device's potential include flawlessly coordinating the graphic and true components with detail and without distracting flicker. The UR approach integrates graphics and video by assigning sets of axes that use visible landmarks as reference points. The relative motion of landmarks is calculated to keep computer-generated images properly positioned. "If you're working with a small room or an uncluttered scene, this is easy to do," Vallino says. "But if you're designing goggles for soldiers on a battlefield, that's another story." The augmented reality goggle research is funded by DARPA and the National Science Foundation. Any resulting products probably will not be available through comic books. For more information, contact James Vallino (716) 273-4726, e-mail: email@example.com.
Smart house part of Earth Day observation
The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), a Golden, CO-based institute funded by the U.S. DOE, is working with the Denver chapter of Habitat for Humanity to design ultra-low-energy passive solar houses in the downtown area of that city. The designs integrate low-energy building techniques into low-income housing. Goals of the project include incorporating low-emission south-facing windows, overhangs that shade the house in summer, white roof shingles to decrease heat absorption, finger-jointed studs that require less wood, a high efficiency furnace system, compact fluorescent lights, a plastic deck produced from recycled materials, a setback thermostat, and a solar hot water system. The team held a dedication ceremony and open-house for the so-called, Earth-Smart House to commemorate Earth Day in April. For more information on the project, or NREL's other research programs, call Julia Thomas at (303) 275-3023, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smaller is better
Imagine watching The Wizard of Oz on a display smaller than the nail of your pinkie finger. In color, yet. Why? Because you can! Kopin Corp. of Taunton, MA, does not advocate trading in your projection-screen TV for the wonderful world of eye-strain. However, the company is positioning its Cyber Displays as components that permit devices with new levels of portability and detail. The underlying technology is descended from work done at MIT's Lincoln Labs for rendering SDI satellites immune to laser damage from Soviet counter-measures. The displays feature a layer of single crystal silicon rather than the poly-crystals common to LCDs. This allows faster imaging speeds: the display runs at 180 Hz. Color capabilities are managed by alternating red-blue-green backlights at 60 Hz intervals. The 1/4-in diagonal, 320 × 240 pixel display has a contrast ratio over 100:1, and 8-bit gray scale with 256 shades. Power requirements are a modest 30 mW. Packaged for the OEM market, the Cyber Display comes with a lens that approximates a 20-in virtual image seen from a distance of 5 ft when held up to the eye. Developers' kits also come with drive electronics, backlight, documentation, and technical support. Possible applications include: head-mounted displays, high-capacity pagers, cell-phone e-mail screens, hand-held video games, and other mobile computing products. For more information on Cyber Display, call Kobin's sales and marketing department at (508) 824-6696.
Micro-managing surfaces now a snap, says scientist
Research conducted by polymer scientist Thomas Russell and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has resulted in a new way to endow surfaces with precise qualities on a molecular scale. According to Russell, this will permit manufacturers to produce surfaces with characteristics that meet customer specifications exactly. Among the properties that can be refined by the new process are polarity, water absorption, adhesiveness, bio-activity, and electric charge. The process involves manipulating the long molecular chains of polymers and grafting them as films onto silicon substrates. The attached polymers--called "co-polymers"--represent building blocks that can be altered individually. "We can change the composition of a surface with the precision of turning a knob," Russell says. The work, which is detailed in the March 7th issue of Science, has possible ap-plications in microelectronics, medicine, material recovery, and consumer products. For more information, contact Thomas Russell at (413) 577-1516.
Test finds cracks before the concrete crumbles
The national infrastructure of bridges and overpasses by many metrics is in a sorry state. Many of the flaws are out of sight, and thus, out of mind. Unfortunately, it usually requires a catastrophic event such as the earthquake-induced failure of the Nimitz freeway in San Francisco or the normal traffic-induced collapse of an I-95 river-crossing in Connecticut to bring the issue the attention it deserves. Researchers at Los Alamos National Labs have developed a simple, non-destructive method for determining degrees of concrete degradation before visual cues give evidence of impending disaster. According to Los Alamos, the reaction of alkalis and silica in many types of commonly used cement forms a gel that expands in the presence of moisture, resulting in a network of microscopic cracks. The freeze/thaw process to which many public structures are exposed annually enlarges the cracks until the concrete becomes structurally unsound. The test developed by George Guthrie and Bill Carey with Los Alamos' geology and geochemistry group stains the offending gel with a proprietary chemical concoction, touted as environmentally safe. Guthrie says his test is certainly easier to administer and safer than the current procedure, which uses uranyl acetate, a radioactive uranium compound. In addition, Guthrie says his test is cheaper and more accurate. The researchers currently are refining their process to detect the presence of other crack-causing agents. For more information, contact James Rickman, (505) 665-9203.
Annual electric car rally set for May
The United States electric vehicle road rally returns to New England this May. The 1997 run of the American Tour de Sol, sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, is expected to produce a field of 50 entries vying for a number of honors based on range, efficiency, and reliability. After qualifiers, the race begins on May 19 in Waterbury, CT, and ends five days and 350 miles later in Portland, ME. Special events held at stops along the route account for the time lag. Entries from major auto makers, such as Toyota and Ford, will join vehicles from specialty manufacturers, such as Solectria. In addition to the corporate entries, the Tour de Sol will feature sedans, pickups, purpose-builts, and experimental vehicles designed by students from universities and high schools around the country. For more information, contact the NESEA (413) 774-6051.
MIT develops first atom laser
Physicists at MIT have developed what they call the world's first atom laser. The device is similar to an optical laser, except it emits atoms rather than light. The atom laser's beam can be focused to a pinpoint or made to travel large distances without spreading. Also like a laser, the atoms are coherent, in that they form a single matter wave. The new laser could be used for a number of industrial and research applications, such as material deposition or etching. According to Wolfgang Ketterle, of MIT's physics department, the atom laser can be used to create more finely detailed patterns than is currently possible. Among the sponsors of the program are the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Office, which, naturally, begs the "death-ray" question. For more information, contact Elizabeth Thomson (617) 258-5402, e-mail: email@example.com.
by Michael Puttré, Associate Editor