On the Bleeding Edge of 3D

When Ted Hall started working with 3D programming in 1980, it was still a painstaking process to render a single line onscreen, let alone create a full-fledged 3D environment.
"It wasn't anything that I would call virtual reality," Hall says. "That was absolute science-fiction when I started, and now gamers take it for granted. It has changed a lot in the last 30 years, and it will change exponentially in the next 30 years."
One of the most remarkable signs of that change sits in a backroom at the University of Michigan 3D Lab, where Hall works as an advanced visualization specialist. The Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus, or MIDEN, projects three walls of a highly realistic 3D environment that reacts in real time to viewers' movements within the virtual reality.
"Kids these days," Hall laughs. "Kids these days have no idea how good they have it."
While MIDEN may carry the lab's biggest wow factor, it's just one of several different state-of-the-art technologies the facility offers in the areas of 3D imaging, modeling, and projection. Maintained by six staffers and a cadre of student consultants and temps, the lab has been operating under its current name since 2002. While you might expect it to be tucked into some high-security corner of the university, it's eminently accessible to the public. A collection of sculptures welcomes visitors in from the first-floor central collaboration area at the Duderstadt Center on North Campus. Lab manager Eric Maslowski says the lab endeavors to make its resources easily available to everybody, from corporate and government clients to university students.
"We don't make a profit here," Maslowski says. "We just charge for the cost of the materials. It's all so we can encourage the use of the technology."
And that's fortunate, because a walk through the lab reveals a treasure trove of remarkable state-of-the-art machinery that practically begs to be played with. The sculptures displayed at the front of the lab are all products of the lab's 3D printers, which extrude filament onto a moving baseplate, slowly but surely creating a physical replica of a 3D digital design. 3D prints on display include a miniature version of the Bo Schembechler statue housed at the U-M Cardiovascular Center, a replica whale skull, and a model of a child's nose (designed for surgeons to practice removing peanuts from). 
Maslowski says that in contrast to traditional injection molding, the 3D printers offer a way to easily create and refine one-off designs. 
"We want to actually see these become as ubiquitous as a laser printer," he says. "We want to introduce them into classes, labs, or the libraries. You could send a part to the printer and just print it out."
Step a little farther into the lab and you'll find a 3D scanner, which can create a full-fledged 3D digital model of any object. It's scanned artifacts ranging from grasshoppers and goat heads to engine blocks. Maslowski notes that the device recently made a trip to South Africa to scan dinosaur tracks at an archaeological site.
"Instead of going down there with plaster, they went down with briefcases and came back with USB drives," he says.
The lab also houses a stereoscopic 3D screen like those used in movie theaters, as well as a motion-capture system. But those admittedly impressive technologies are just preludes to the lab's pièce de résistance, the MIDEN. Before stepping into the cubicle-sized MIDEN, you'll don a heavy pair of 3D glasses with three small balls protruding from the bridge like antennae. One-upping movie-theater 3D glasses, the goggles alternate blocking the vision in each of your eyes, shuttering as fast as 100 times per second to reduce distortions in the 3D effect. Meanwhile, the balls act as motion-capture sensors, detecting your precise position in the virtual environment.
The result is a virtual world that appears shockingly real and reacts to your movements within it. One simulation puts you inside a dingy-looking basement room in which you can knock down virtual paint cans and planks. "Climb" the stairs to look down at the floor, and it takes a bit of mental strain to remind yourself that you're actually still on the ground floor of the Duderstadt Center. Beyond this more playful application, the MIDEN has been put to numerous practical uses. Detroit Metropolitan Airport's McNamara Terminal was pre-visualized in the MIDEN, and the facility's currently being used for a research project on wayfinding for seniors in assisted living settings. 
Although the concept of the MIDEN may seem like a wildly different technology from the 3D printers or other devices at the lab, Hall says they all "feed into each other." Maslowski adds that you can input the same 3D digital model into any of the lab's technologies to realize it in a variety of ways.
"Because there are different paths one can take, it helps to go to one location where there are multiple individuals who are well-versed in those different paths," Maslowski says. "It really helps people to find their direction."
The accessibility of U-M's facility makes it a particularly rare gem. The lab provides unique ease of access to technology that's on the rise but still fairly exotic to the general public, like the 3D printers. And in the case of the MIDEN, Maslowski says it's one of only a couple of publicly accessible similar facilities nationwide.
"Generally these technologies are locked behind doors because they're very expensive, they require expertise, and they can be very delicate," Maslowski says. "Here, people say, 'We want to use the MIDEN,' and we say 'Okay, we'll help you do what you want to do.'"

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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