NASA equipment finds new home at UTC

Dr. Joe Dumas, UC Foundation Associate Professor of Computer Science, spent the summers of 1996, 1997, 2000, and 2001 as a faculty fellow in a NASA lab at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. While he worked on "virtual reality" or real-time, computer-based, man-in-the-loop simulation used by NASA for training and human factors design evaluation, he noticed lab equipment that would no longer be used by NASA, but could have a new life in the hands of faculty and students at UTC.

NASA decided to donate computers that will help simulate activities in the real world, including space flight, operating vehicles or machinery, and walking through a building, along with peripheral devices that will allow a human user to interact with these simulations.

“The computer systems are Silicon Graphics workstations which are optimized for high performance computer graphics. This is important because most of our interaction with the world is visual—so the more realistic the simulated world is visually, the better the simulation,” Dumas said.

Another acquisition for the department is a device called a "data glove". This glove allows the computer to identify gestures a user makes with his or her hand. Fiber optics are used to sense the amount of bend in each of the user's fingers; this allows the simulation of objects being grasped or released, which adds realism to the simulation as the user is able to interact with the simulated world.

A Polhemus Fastrak tracker is another item on the gift list. It has sensors that can be attached to the body and tracked remotely using a magnetic field; its tracking unit periodically reports position and orientation to the host computer so the state of the simulation can be updated.

“This equipment will allow us to work on collaborative projects with NASA and possibly other outside agencies, as well as to pursue investigations of our own in the area of real-time simulation and virtual reality. Upper-level undergraduates and graduate students will be able to work on these research projects with faculty, giving them an opportunity to learn techniques and concepts that they ordinarily wouldn't be exposed to in the classroom. It is even possible that we might be able to use the equipment in conjunction with existing courses, or develop a new course or courses around it,” Dumas said.

The NASA equipment can be used with equipment and expertise acquired from previous grants, including the Wolf Aviation Fund grant that helped develop a virtual Space Shuttle simulator and the Lupton Renaissance grant for information visualization through virtual reality.

“We are saving this NASA equipment from gathering dust in the lab, being discarded, or becoming surplus for pennies on the dollar, and giving it a good home where our faculty and students will be able to use it for research projects,” Dumas said.