Virtually Possible

Computer-simulated environment makes learning a sensory experience


Imagine entering a darkened room in Falvey Memorial Library and finding yourself transported to the depths of the Grand Canyon … or the surface of Mars. Impossible, you say? Not at all. Welcome to the CAVE, a virtual reality facility that uses mobile immersive-video technology to capture photorealistic representations of real-world environments, as well as computer-generated graphics for 3-D visualization, making the heretofore-impossible possible.

Villanova was awarded a $1.67 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—the largest NSF grant ever awarded to the University—to develop this new iteration of a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), which will facilitate both research and education; and the CAVE Rover, a robotic device used to collect video that can be shown in the CAVE. The CAVE, CAVE Rover and the software required to integrate the two are the primary components of the Villanova Immersive Studies System (VISS).

This ambitious 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 J. Dougherty ’69 COE, ’86 MS, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and director of Engineering Entrepreneurship; and Scholarly Outreach Librarian Darren Poley, past interim director of Falvey Memorial Library.

Dr. Klassner is the principal investigator for the NSF grant and the driving force behind the effort to bring a CAVE facility to Villanova, but he is quick to acknowledge the input and support for the project from colleagues across the University, chief among them Professor Dougherty and Poley, who serve as co-principal investigators.

This is the first major research instrumentation development grant—funding provided to design and create new, cutting-edge equipment—that the University has received from the NSF: “Traditionally, CAVEs are used to display computer-generated imagery. We were able to make the case that there are no CAVEs out there set up with a relationship with a roving, immersive-video camera, so it’s really the CAVE plus the CAVE Rover, representing a unified piece of equipment, that extends the standard CAVE model to provide many more possibilities for research,” Dr. Klassner notes. “We would be able to take this immersive-video camera and use the real world itself to do the experiments.”

Professor Dougherty and Edmond J. “EJ” Dougherty III ’92 CLAS, ’01 MS, an adjunct professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are developing the CAVE Rover, the apparatus that will support—and transport— a 360-degree spherical camera capable of delivering immersive video by integrating images from six image sensors in real time. This father-son team developed the Wavecam that follows the action at Villanova basketball games at the Pavilion, and Professor Dougherty also had a hand in the Skycam, which is widely used in sports broadcasting.

Professor Dougherty believes the Rover can be used to capture the pulse of the campus, much like The Villanovan’s “Coffee Break” question-of-the-week does now, and EJ Dougherty suggests the Rover could one day deliver interactive campus tours for prospective students who, for one reason or another, are unable to visit the University in person.

The CAVE Rover also will venture out beyond the campus to gather information for classroom use and research projects. “In another year, we’ll be able to get video from the camera directly to the CAVE over the Internet,” says Dr. Klassner. “Right now we can show staged video: Record the video on the Rover, take it off the Rover and then display it.” Numerous research projects suggested by faculty across the University are under consideration, including studies involving traffic safety, stormwater control, human visual attention, energy-smart electronic systems and insect behavior. And students will be given the opportunity to work on projects involving the CAVE and the Rover through the Engineering Entrepreneurship program and projects sponsored by CEET.

Professor Dougherty would like to see the Rover used 24/7. “We’ve been talking to professors all over the country about how they might use it. Again, this is looking forward a little more, but it’s exciting to see the interest this has drawn, and how people like car manufacturers and chemical designers have different ideas. It’s a blank slate, and that’s the fun of it.” Speaking of fun, the Doughertys had some while pondering a key question: What do you call a mobile camera that will enable Villanovans to see more of campus life and the world beyond the University? Displaying a wit as sharp as their engineering skills, they’ve dubbed their creation “Seymour.”

The first CAVE was introduced at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1992, and Dr. Klassner, then a graduate student, was intrigued by the concept. Dr. Klassner was still following the development of CAVE facilities when he arrived at Villanova to teach in 1997. CAVE technology continued to progress in the 2000s, delivering more sophisticated tools that were easier to use.

“This was starting to get more attractive,” recalls Dr. Klassner, “but I really wasn’t sure what the right way to bring a CAVE on campus would be until I started working with the Vatican Internship program in the Computing Sciences Department. When I saw the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, I thought, this is material worthy of the CAVE. We did a joint project with the Communication Department, designing a set of virtual tours for these locations, and it was at that point that I was convinced we needed to bring a CAVE here, if for no other reason than to show this kind of material in a compelling fashion.”

And officials at the Vatican Museums agree. They have expressed an interest in working with VISS to see how this kind of technology could enable Vatican visitors to see historic areas that are too fragile to withstand large numbers of tourists.

“The other thing that started me thinking about a CAVE at Villanova,” says Dr. Klassner, “was the interdisciplinary nature of it. For a long time, Father Peter has been encouraging inter­disciplinary outreach. Not just between departments, but even across and between colleges. The zeitgeist was right. This would be the kind of facility that would encourage people to reach across traditional boundaries on campus.”

The idea of bringing together faculty and students from all the colleges on campus was central to the decision to locate the CAVE in Falvey Memorial Library. Poley notes that CAVEs often are tucked away in a research facility on other campuses, leaving the college community at large with no access. “The library is, by its very nature, cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary. We wanted to bring [the CAVE] into the library because we wanted our CAVE to be seen as something the entire campus shares,” says Poley.

As an outreach librarian, Poley is involved in “building bridges” to various groups at the University. “I see this as a great opportunity for the library to collaborate with others on campus, which is important to me, but also for different people on campus to collaborate with one another. To facilitate that is exciting because I believe that’s the future of libraries—providing a place where that sort of collaborative learning and collaborative research can occur,” says Poley.

In 2013, Falvey Memorial Library was awarded the Library of Excellence Award in the University category by the Association of College and Research Libraries. After receiving this honor, the library staff began discussing ways in which Falvey could become “more excellent” and remain on the cutting edge. Poley views the installation of the CAVE at Falvey as a way to do just that.

Villanova’s CAVE, which was built by the Mechdyne Corp. at a cost of $1.2 million, is designated a C-4.5, meaning that images can be projected on its three walls and floor, or three walls and retractable ceiling. It is one of the largest CAVEs in the country, with a ceiling measuring 18 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 7.5 feet high. The CAVE’s size enables its use as an inter-active classroom where a professor can conduct a seminar for 10 to 15 students at a time. Academic departments across Villa­nova will use VISS in courses. Nursing students can come to the CAVE to fly through a CT scan of the human body in 3-D as it floats in thin air before them. Art History majors can take a video tour of the world’s great museums. Future engineers can observe the inner workings of a jet engine. The CAVE’s applications for education are as broad as the fields of study offered at Villanova.

Ultimately, the CAVE will be available two days every week for teaching. Any professor on campus will be able to reserve the facility for teaching a class. In time, members of the communities surrounding Villanova also will be invited to experience the CAVE facility. To that end, Dr. Klassner will join the Villanova Institute for Teaching and Learning (VITAL) as a faculty associate during the spring semester to develop a plan and outline the needed prep work to establish the CAVE as a bona fide teaching tool.

Dr. Klassner believes Villanova is the perfect place to intro­duce CAVE technology to new audiences. “Villanova is a large enough school that it has a variety of research and educational-innovation ideals that you can bring to bear, but it’s not so large that this facility would be lost on campus.” He believes the University will lead the way in demonstrating the myriad of applications for CAVE technology, not only in research and education, but also in the development and use of immersive video.

It’s an exciting time to be a member of the Villanova community and experience the wonders of the CAVE. And the excitement will continue to build in the coming years as the CAVE Rover takes students, faculty and staff on journeys far beyond the University’s borders, and advances in the fields of immersive video and CAVE technology make it possible to explore, literally, any topic under the sun.

Frank Klassner, PhD, has boundless enthusiasm for his work with students in the Computing Sciences Department; in his role as director of the Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology; in his seat on an educational advisory board for the Lego Group; and for the infinite possibilities for research and education that Villanova’s CAVE facility will provide.

Early in his career, Dr. Klassner designed a course that combined his enthusiasm for artificial intelligence and robotics. A Villanova parent, impressed with the professor’s work, made a generous donation enabling Dr. Klassner to purchase Lego robots and computers to program them. Soon, he secured a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to expand his work on the use of robotics in computer science courses. Dr. Klassner views that gift as a pivotal moment in his career because it led to the first of many NSF grants he would receive.

When news of the $1.67 million NSF grant was announced, Lillian “Boots” Cassel, PhD, chair of the Department of Computing Sciences, threw a champagne party. Dr. Klassner was grateful for the gesture, particularly when he learned Dr. Cassel had held the record for largest NSF grant, and it gave him the idea to “pass it along.” He bought a bottle of champagne to be given to the Villanova faculty member who breaks his record by getting an even larger grant from NSF. “As Villanova makes progress in its research program, somebody should get a bigger one,” says Dr. Klassner, “and this will be my thanks to that person for helping us progress here.”