Virtual-Reality ‘Proto-Holodeck’ Enlivens Engineering Simulation

The RAVE CAVE, about the size of a large cubicle and outfitted with cutting-edge vision technologies, is allowing engineers to see and interact with their design simulations as they would experience in real life. Located in the metro Detroit area, the simulator is also open to the public to promote engineering education.


The Holodeck was one of the most fantastic technologies dreamed up in Gene Roddenberry’s epic Star Trek. While that was fiction, however, real-life technology like the RAVE CAVE, for Reconfigurable Center for Automated Virtual Environments, offers virtual-reality setups that might impress even Scotty and Geordi. Using 3D active-shutter glasses, four projectors, face-tracking technology, and advanced hardware and software (see diagram below), RAVE CAVE can create an immersive 3D virtual-reality environment for simulations, computer-aided design, finite element analysis (FEA), and computational fluid dynamic (CFD) studies.

Art Adlam, president of the RAVE CAVE, explained: “We use four rear projection screens, each has a transmitter and receiver that coordinate and synchronize the glasses of the user to the screen. The viewer’s eye position is tracked so that when you look to the left, the image rotates to how it would when you look to the left in real life. This gives immersion and believability. The computers are generating real-time images based on where the person is located (in the 10-by-10-by-8-foot space) and what they are looking at. This means the glasses, computers, and projectors are all synchronized.”

Rave-Cave-Setup

The RAVE CAVE setup. Credit: www.ravecave.org

Adlam is program manager of special projects for Rave Computer, a computer hardware consulting, integration, and support specialist based in Sterling Heights, Mich. The company offers custom-configured solutions to OEMs that embed computers, the defense industry, independent software vendors, and commercial customers that require integration services or supply chain management support.

Adlam continued: “The 3D image is created using liquid crystal display goggles that shutter on and off with the projected image. If the left eye image is projected, the left shutter is transparent and you can see it, while the right eye is closed. The next frame reverses the shutters and the right eye can now see the image. This happens at about 45 fps (frames per second) depending on the complexity of the object on the screen (determined by how many pixels and polygons). You want to make sure the frame rate is greater than 1/15 of a second to avoid shuttering, jumping, and the brain losing the illusion of 3D.”

With this technology, engineers can interact and see their simulations as they would behave in real life. If you are looking into the blockage of an artery and the best way to add a stent, why not walk inside the artery itself? If you are a car manufacturer and you want to see how your car will hold up in a crash, why not be a bystander and see the crumple points? If you’re a production engineer and want to see how your equipment can assemble a product, why not see where the conflicts will be beforehand? The simulation possibilities are endless as long as the CAD models, simulations, and post-processing can be set up on the RAVE CAVE.

The RAVE CAVE on standby. Credit: www.ravecave.org

The RAVE CAVE on standby. Credit: www.ravecave.org

“This is an excellent communication tool,” Adlam said, “to have customers put on head-tracking glasses and see the product and how it will behave based on the simulation software and post-processing.” He explains that some simulations, typically CFD and FEA, will need to be post-processed to work in the RAVE CAVE. However, other simulation software, ones that typically have physics engines, may not need this post-processing step.

The RAVE CAVE is a nonprofit effort between Rave Computer; the U.S. Army TARDEC (Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center); and the Defense Corridor/Center for Collaboration and Synergy (DC3S). The latter is a public-private nonprofit partnership focused on fostering creative R&D and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education. They have access to software and hardware at no cost. Local to Metro Detroit and open for public use, the simulator is available to all educational entities for STEM-related activities as well as industries that have a consistent need for it on a daily or weekly basis. The simulator is located at DC3S’s facility in Sterling Heights.

“We function on contributors and donations,” Adlam said. “Otherwise, it would be very expensive to get the software packages we use. However, if we don’t have a package you wish to use, you can always temporarily transfer your software license to the RAVE CAVE computers,” he explained. Currently, the cave is supplied with up-to-date hardware and software from ESI, RTT, Autodesk, OPTIS, MechDyne, Rave Computer, Intel, and Nvidia with many more on the way.

This nonprofit is also perfectly positioned to help education in STEM fields in a very powerful way. The facility’s goals include:

  • Promoting STEM to schools and education
  • Providing access to higher-education research
  • Promoting U.S. Army and other government research
  • Promoting technology in the southern Michigan high-tech workforce

In essence, the RAVE CAVE provides access to high-tech virtual-reality simulation technology to those that would normally not have access to it. It is thus helping to provide entertainment, improved products, information, and inspiration the next generation of STEM professionals much like Star Trek did before it.

Top photo credit: www.ravecave.org

This article was originally published on Engineering.com and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.

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