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Exploring New Frontiers: Computer Research Points Way to Virtual Environments
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Computer Research Points Way to Virtual Environments


  (L to R) Tasha Sakaguchi '04; Claude Fennema, chair of the College's computer science department; Huma Jafry '03; Farial Anam '03; and Larissa Winey '04 are figuring out how to connect a treadmill to a computer that will project an artificial version of the Clapp Lab hallway, seen here, onto a screen mounted in front of the treadmill.

Aboard the starship Enterprise is a place called the holodeck, a fantastic space where powerful computers can simulate almost any environment with a degree of fidelity indistinguishable from reality. Here, the ship’s crew can stroll the streets of Victorian London, for instance, or ride the trails of the Old West. This is the stuff of science fiction. But if this tantalizing bit of fantasy should become reality decades from now, it may be in some small part thanks to the work of Claude L. Fennema Jr., chair of Mount Holyoke’s computer science department, and his team of student researchers.

Working with student researchers at three other institutions—fellow computer scientists at the University of Utah and perception scientists at the University of Minnesota and Vanderbilt University— the Mount Holyoke students are delving into the mysteries of the human/machine interface, the ways in which a computer can create a full-scale environment that human senses regard as real. The schools are working together under a five-year, $4-million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for the study of so-called “locomotion interfaces,” the technology that, as Fennema, says, “makes an artificial environment seem real and makes it feel like you’re really there.”

Virtual reality has been with us for some time, in the form of computer-generated special effects and flight simulators, to name a few of its uses. Yet technology that would allow a person to walk through a full-size physical environment remains beyond reach. The benefits of such technology would not be limited to interstellar recreation—children could visit Rome’s Colosseum, architects could walk through a building still under design, and firefighters could be trained to contain fires without being put at risk.

Designing equipment to “create” a virtual environment, as on a computer screen or a projection, has been the focus of much research, and its fruits can be seen in the Sony PlayStation and the movie The Lord of the Rings. The locomotion interface research takes that work in a new direction, looking for the first time at the interactions of visual and perceptual cues in the virtual world. In other words, what sorts of things do our senses need to perceive for the world to seem real? Which explains the existence of the treadmill in a computer laboratory in Clapp Lab.

One question that keenly interests the students in Fennema’s Information Technology Research (ITR) group— Farial Anam ’03, Huma Jafry ’03, Nausheen Malik ’03, Natasha Mohanty ’03, Tasha Sakaguchi ’04, and Larissa Winey ’04—is the relationship between the motion of walking and what we see—what Fennema calls “optical flow.” What “feels” right at different paces, and different strides? What happens if a person walking at a certain gait sees the scenery passing by too quickly, or too slowly?

The students are figuring out how to connect the treadmill to a computer that will project an artificial environment—in this case, the fourth-floor hallway of Clapp—onto a screen mounted in front of the treadmill. Once the device is working, people will be able to “walk” down the virtual hallway.

Even this rudimentary interface raises many technical questions. During a weekly meeting of the ITR group, Fennema presses students to move past their urges to perfect the device in the design stage, to “get it together and get it working and then see where the shortcomings are.”

What about textures? the students ask. Lighting? Shadows? Levels of detail? How can the hallway be scaled to make it appear to be the right size? Is there a way to get around the time the computer needs to render its scenes, making motion appear jerky? These, Fennema said, are next steps to be addressed once the system is running. That is the goal for this spring.

Students do more than tinker with software and meet weekly with Fennema. Through the ITR project, they attend conferences, work with researchers in other fields and at other institutions, and prepare an honors project—all rare opportunities for undergraduates in research. Participating students can work their entire junior year on the project, spending ten hours a week in independent study, and getting paid for an additional ten hours under the NSF grant.

Students can also spend part of their summers at Utah, working on the Treadport, a state-of-the-art locomotion interface with an eight-by-ten foot treadmill developed at that school by William Thompson, the lead investigator under the NSF grant. All of these opportunities are “chances to get them involved in a really big way,” Fennema says.

“Working on a project of this scale is very different from working in an independent study,” says Mohanty. “It involves not only taking care of my part of the project, but learning to work with other people and learning from others. I want to go to graduate school in the future, and this project is giving me a flavor of the kind of work I will be doing.”

For Anam, research held little interest until she learned of the ITR project. “I realized that by not even giving research a chance I would be denying myself a possibly great opportunity and career.” That she may be helping to bring about the kinds of virtual reality envisioned in Star Trek was an added inducement.

For Fennema, ITR represents the latest chapter in a forty-year computing career. In the 1960s, he was among the scientists who cobbled together “Shakey,” a computer-controlled robot trumpeted by Life magazine as “the first electronic person.” He helped develop the technology that General Motors, Ford, and Caterpillar used to create industrial robots, and later went to the 3M Company to help turn research discoveries into marketable products, learning how the marketplace helps focus research to have an impact on society.

He began to consider teaching as a way to have a greater impact and came to the College in 1990, helping to develop the computer science major. With three daughters—one a teacher of math and computer science, a second who has a doctorate in cognitive science, and a third with a degree in English and journalism—Fennema was particularly enthused about having a role in encouraging women in the sciences.

Fennema is proud of the track record of the department’s graduates: of the sixty-four who graduated between 1992 and 2000, eleven entered doctoral programs, and eight entered master’s programs. Two—Margarita D. Bratkova ’01 and Sarah T. Erickson ’01—are now pursuing their doctorates in computer science at Utah, says Thompson, the director of the program there, “and we hope to have more.”

Fennema’s experience tells him to teach his students to take a long view, to ignore the trends, and to focus on the fundamental questions. “I want them to think about a twenty-year cycle, to think far enough out to create a career of interest,” he says.

“These students will become technical leaders, able to persuade people that this is the direction to go in,” he adds. “Remember—TV took twenty-six years to make it to market.”

And don’t be surprised if someday you find yourself waiting in line for those holodeck tickets.

Can a Robot Help You Get Into Graduate School?
If the Robot Is Susan B., Then The Answer is Yes

  Jessica Littman '02 (left) and Suchi Saria '04 with robot Susan B.

Susan B. is a two-foot-tall, cylindrical robot created at Mount Holyoke in 1990 as a platform for research into artificial intelligence. Equipped with a television camera and connected to a network of computers, Susan B. (named for Susan B. Anthony) has helped Mount Holyoke students cut their research teeth in such areas as computer vision, natural languages, computer networking, electronics, and parallel processing. For several, this research experience has been a springboard to graduate schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford. Fifteen honors projects and twenty-two independent projects have been carried out under Susan B.’s umbrella. Lately, Susan B. has been spending time with Jessica Littman ’02 and Suchi Saria ’04. Littman is doing an honors project aimed at helping the computer teach itself to figure out the implications of commands given in common English. Through a kind of artificial reasoning, Fennema says, the computer can learn how to do what it’s told to do. Even a seemingly simple question like “Where are you?” can require complex reasoning on the robot’s part. “She may have to look at colors, decide what patterns mean, and compare what she sees with her memories of the environment. She may find that she has to move,” Fennema says. Saria is developing a navigation system that will allow the robot to navigate intelligently, using information that it gathers along the way to plot its path. Built on Susan B.’s software platform, the new navigation system will be at the heart of “Susan C.,” the new robot Saria is working to build with Fennema and Mount Holyoke computer science professor Paul Dobosh.


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