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Datagloves, wands, stairsteppers. These and other interface devices used in virtual environments serve as portals into virtual reality. Whether you are using the head-mounted displays, BOOM, or CAVE, such interface devices form a physical connection between you and the computer through which you interact with the images displayed.
You can pick up objects, navigate a plane through downtown Chicago, or join two molecules of protein. The varieties and applications in virtual reality are limitless.
Here's a sampling of devices in current use.
Data gloves offer a simple means of gesturing commands to the computer. Rather than punching in commands on a keyboard, which can be tricky if you're wearing a head-mounted display or are operating the BOOM, you program the computer to change modes in res ponse to the gestures you make with the datagloves.
Pointing upwards may mean zoom in; pointing down, zoom out. A shake of your fist may signal the computer to end the program. Some people program the computer to mimick their hand movements in the simulation; for instance, to see their hands while conducting a virtual symphony.
One type of dataglove has a web of fiber optic cables along its back. Changes in the amount of light transmitted to the computer by the cables signal how the joints of your fingers are bent. Once the dataglove has been calibrated to your hand, your gestur es trigger pre-programmed commands.
Other gloves use strain sensors over the joints to detect movement. Yet others rely on mechanical sensors to measure your hand movements.
Some computer users have elaborated on the dataglove concept by creating facial sensors, even body suits. Not many scientists have climbed into these get ups, but animators have. Already, facial movement sensors hooked to computers are simplifying their job: animating cartoons.
Wands, the simplest of the interface devices, come in all shapes and variations. Most incorporate on-off buttons to control variables in a simulation or in the display of data. Others have knobs, dials, or joy sticks. Their design and manner of response a re tailored to the application. For example, biologists sometimes use wands like scalpels to slice tissue samples from virtual brains.
Most wands operate with six degrees of freedom; that is, by pointing a wand at an object, you can change its position and orientation in any of six directions: forward or backward, up or down, or left or right. This versatility coupled with simplicity are the reasons for the wand's popularity.
Almost anything can be converted into a sensing device for simulation in virtual reality. Researchers have converted a trampoline into a pseudosurf board. Caterpillar, Inc. attached sensors to a mock tractor cab, complete with steering wheel and pedals, and used this environment to simulate test drives of its new line of backhoe loaders.
Stairsteppers are an example of the limitless manifestations of interface devices. As part of a simulated battlefield terrain, engineers from an army research lab outfitted a stairstepper with sensing devices to detect the speed, direction, and intensity of a soldier's movements in response to the battlefied scenes projected onto a head-mounted display. The stairstepper provided feedback to the soldier by making the stairs easier or more difficult to climb.
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