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Exploring Virtual Worlds

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Aditya Vegesna, Matthew Overby, Pete Willemsen (center with laptop), Jack Gilbert, and Gai Geng.

Computer Science Research Uses “Unreal” Simulations to Improve Real Life

“Our most significant work comes from collaborating with engineers, urban planners, psychologists, robotic engineers, meteorologists, and other scientists.” --- Pete Willemsen

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Willemsen adjusts the virtual reality headset for Aditya Vegesna.

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Model showing the surface temperatures of Salt Lake City.

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Matthew Overby works on calculations to learn the effect of vegetation on building temperature.
Strap on a headset and walk on the surface of Mars. Move a building closer to trees on a computer screen and calculate how much cooler a real building will be if it’s built near a park. Slip on Smart Shoes in a laboratory and feel the difference between walking on grass and walking on concrete.  Welcome to the world of Pete Willemsen, associate professor, UMD Department of Computer Science.  

Willemsen teaches computer graphics, computer networks, and human computer interaction for virtual environments and is the advisor to nearly a dozen undergraduate and master degree students. He and his students are pushing science fiction closer to reality by creating and learning from virtual worlds. “Computer science is much more than running programs in a room by yourself,” Willemsen said. “Our most significant work comes from collaborating with engineers, urban planners, psychologists, robotic engineers, meteorologists, and other scientists.”

One of his biggest projects, GEnUSiS, (Green Environmental Urban Simulations for Sustainability), is designed to aid urban planners. While he worked as a research assistant professor at the University of Utah, his first position after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, Willemsen and his colleagues built a computer model of all of the buildings in Salt Lake City, Utah. This model served as a platform to simulate how urban layout and structure impacts pollution dispersion and energy usage. The model can be used to calculate heat build-up, the impact of solar energy surface radiation and absorption, how pollution particles behave, and the influence of vegetation on buildings.

"My colleagues and I are working to understand the complex relationships between urban form and the environment," he said. "We simulate urban settings to see how structure, form, and other infrastructure, such as parks or green rooftops, might affect the local environment, eventually using the data from the simulations to drive larger scale environment models.

Even a simple change to the model involves massive data and a complex set of algorithms. For instance, building heating systems and vehicles emit pollution. The pollution hovers near the ground in the walking layer and causes a health risk for humans. Willemsen’s model shows what happens to the pollution particles when calculations factor in wind. The model shows how the particles travel through the city when completely unobstructed or swirl around when they hit buildings. The calculations are run for dozens of variables such as wind speed and wind direction. “We can demonstrate an optimal layout of a city,” Willemsen said. “For instance, we may optimize a particular set of simulations to find the layouts that minimize the pollution (or heat) in specific parts of the city."

Willemsen's graduate students are working on and using the simulation system. Gai Geng works on real-time image creation for virtual environments, and has also implemented parallel pollution dispersion models for the simulations.

Current graduate student Aditya Vegesna is working on his masters degree in computer science. His project is to link a number of computers together in order to speed up the process of comparing locations for building placement. For instance, a corporation is going to construct a high-rise building in a downtown area. Vegesna can show the impact the building would have for a variety of factors in several different sites.

Matthew Overby is also working on the simulation model for his thesis. His work is focusing on making the model run faster using parallel processing techniques while also working to improve the model's representation of trees and green infrastructure. His work simulates how adding trees can significantly lower the temperature in buildings.

Willemsen’s Simulation and Interaction in Virtual Environments (SIVE) lab demonstrates the principles of virtual reality. When students or visitors don a SIVE headset or head-mounted display, they enter another world. Using data provided by NASA, Willemsen programed a virtual environment that simulates the planet Mars. When the user puts on the headset, they see the surface of Mars with craters, hills, mountains, and all of its topographic features. As the user walks towards objects, the landscape changes in real time, just as if the user was on the real planet. Three undergraduates, Jerald Thomas, Steve Jungst, and Scott Redig, contributed their talents to the Mars project.

Soon Willemsen will use haptic devices so people can touch, feel, and potentially manipulate objects in a virtual environment. One device with haptic properties is a ‘Smart Shoe.’ Inside the shoe are tiny bladders that can fill with air. When the shoe is used in a Mars demonstration, the user will be able to feel some of the features on which they are standing, such as rocks or uneven terrain features. Another use for the Smart Shoe is in the medical field. For instance, if a person has trouble with balance, the shoe would allow them to walk on a cobblestone street without feeling unstable. Graduate student Jack Gilbert is working on the haptic project.

Willemsen’s contributions to UMD earned him the 2013 Sabra S. and Dennis L. Anderson Scholar/Teacher Award. His work is published in eight prestigious journals and nearly all of them have “virtual environments” in the title. In 2011 he and colleagues from Utah received a National Science Foundation research grant for over $1 million, and he was recently featured in a publication by NVIDIA, an American global technology company based in Santa Clara, California.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to UMD is helping his students use virtual reality technology to answer difficult questions. “As computer scientists, we help others understand overwhelming amounts of data,” Willemsen said. “We work with other scientist to solve problems; it’s an interdisciplinary field.”

Story by Cheryl Reitan with Princess Awa-Ada Kisob, June 2013

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