Researchers in the UK have developed a virtual reality system for engineering purposes that remains affordable for even a modest-sized firm.

While popular media coverage of virtual reality has focused largely on its potential in the entertainment and gaming industries, researchers in the UK are already using the technology to enhance the ability of engineers and builders to simulate and visualise complete environments at an affordable price.

The VuePod, developed by Brigham Young University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is a 3D immersive visualisation environment that enables engineers to interact with fully accurate simulations of the real world in remarkable and innovative ways.

While other universities have already developed their own fully immersive virtual reality facilities, the distinctive advantage of BYU’s VuePod is its comparatively low price tag. Rival systems can cost as much as US$10 million to construct and maintain, the VuePod built by BYU’s students costs little more than the average car at US$30,000.

According to civil engineering professor Dan Ames, who supervised the development of the VuePod by BYU students, one of the chief goals was to make the technology economical and affordable enough for widespread usage by industry.

“Our question has been: How can we make this technology accessible?” said Ames. “We’re trying to determine the threshold for getting the most function at the most affordable cost. Ultimately the goal is to take and expensive tool and make it cheaper for an everyday engineering firm to use.”

The device consists of 12 high-definition 55-inch 3D television screens cobbled together to create a single massive 108 square foot screen, all of which are simultaneously controlled by means of a Wii remote via a Bluetooth device called SmartTrack. The immersive nature of the technology is further enhanced for users by wearing 3D glasses.

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The virtual environments displayed by the VuePoint are produced using point data gathered by means of the same LIDAR laser-scanning technology employed in building information modelling (BIM). The LIDAR equipment is installed on aeroplanes that scan entire landscapes from the air, amassing millions of data points that can then be used to create immersive simulations of whole environments.

The point data can also be assembled at reduced cost using low-cost drones that gather a multitude of contiguous images.

The VuePod has already been used to reproduce a canyon area situated beneath a plateau in the south of Idaho. Simply by donning the 3D glasses and wielding the Wii controller, a user can enter a remarkably vivd simulation of the environment, as well as interact with it in ways that defy the conventional laws of physics – flying through the air to elevated vantage points, for example.

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The VuePod was developed by Ames and his team with the specific goal of applying it to environmental engineering projects. A key example of its potential applicability is the use of two separate data sets taken five years apart to reproduce the same canyon, in order to make salient changes in the natural landscape that would otherwise go undetected by the human eye.

“Our eyes and our brains are so amazing; we need to take full advantage of them,” said Ames. “That’s the value of this project; we’re presenting more information for the human eyes to detect changes.”

In addition to its applications for environmental engineering, the VuePod also has applications for infrastructure monitoring and inspection, enabling engineers to better scrutinise changes to highways, bridges and buildings over the passage of time.

The VuePod could also be employed to dramatically enhance the usability of building information modelling (BIM), enabling engineers, architects and members of the construction industry to interact with data-enhanced, fully immersive simulations of their projects.