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Society/business Center for Information Technology Research and Innovation Support Virtual Reality and Visualisation

Real research in Virtual Reality

The Illusionmanager (photo Reyer Boxem)
The Illusionmanager (photo Reyer Boxem)


Deeply hidden within the concrete walls of the Zernikeborg lies the Reality Centre – a place where scientists and nerds play with virtual reality. Researchers wearing 3D glasses study molecular structures, the development of the universe and human behaviour.

By Peter Keizer


The Reality Centre is no ordinary cinema. With its blue LED lights, red carpet and control centre it looks more like the bridge of the Star Trek spaceship, the USS Enterprise. When the six engines – huge Full HD projectors placed behind the screen – start making noise, the screen turns into a giant window with a stunning view of the cosmos.

“Can you show us the colliding galaxies?” If this is the USS Enterprise, Frans van Hoesel is Captain Kirk, or rather his sophisticated Next Generation successor, Jean-Luc Picard. He is the Illusion Manager and head of the Centre for High Performance Computing and Visualization (HPC/V). “This is a beautiful piece of data, almost like a dance. If you were to add ballet music to it, it would fit perfectly”, he says. On the screen of the Reality Theatre, as the RUG cinema is called, two galaxies circle each other until they’re drawn together by gravity and smash. The stars don’t just scatter across the screen, they’re flying through the room. The images are so impressive and seem so nearby, you almost want to grab the stars right out of the sky.

“We’ve made this animation for the astronomers. They already knew the data of course, but here they discovered new features”, Van Hoesel says. “Sure, you can look at the same data on your desktop computer, but by visualizing it, you get the opportunity to look at the collision from different angles. You can compare it with someone who’s making an Excel spreadsheet with lots of figures. If you transform the data into a graph, it’s easier to understand. The same data is in the spreadsheet, but this way you can see it more clearly. Visualizations are very useful.”


The Reality Centre was built almost seven years ago, but got updated recently. The cinema was rebuilt, new projectors were installed and equipment renewed, costing around EUR 800,000. The curved eight-and-a-half metre wide screen places the viewer in the centre of the action. “We project 120 frames per second and for each frame there is a different image for the left and right eye. We use active shutter glasses to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image”, Van Hoesel explains. The glasses alternately darken over one eye and then the other, in synchronization with the refresh rate of the screen, while the display alternately displays different perspectives for each eye.

Van Hoesel already has some new plans lined up. He wants to transform the cinema screen into a giant virtual touch screen. “We’re going to place cameras behind the screen that track your fingers. You’ll be able to stand there and move the data around. We’ll start experimenting with the virtual touch screen in the coming year.”

Psychologists use the Reality Centre to treat anxiety disorders, such as acrophobia, arachnophobia, fear of flying and even eating disorders. Patients are placed in a 3D environment to face their worst fears. “It feels very real. Once a girl with a fear of heights visited the Centre. She stood here for over half an hour with sweaty hands. She didn’t dare take another step. After treatment here for two months, she went abseiling off the Euromast, without her therapist.”

Time for another demonstration of what virtualization can do. “Can you show us the zoo?”, Van Hoesel asks. The 3D modellers and VR specialists of the HPC/V have created a virtual zoological garden to show the future plans of the zoo in Emmen.

Although we’re sitting in a chair wearing 3D glasses, I get the feeling we’re exploring the tropical area of the zoo from a motorboat. It feels like we really are part of this virtual world. On the left there are ring-tailed lemurs playing in the grass, on the right there’s a water buffalo swimming across the river. “They want to finish this area in 2014. Thanks to these images they can already see whether their plans will work. Look, you can see the restaurant behind those trees.”

Suddenly the water starts to rise – our boat is slowly sinking. “A little bit higher, Matthew!”, Van Hoesel cries out. “He’s not used to steering the camera”, he adds. We can already see the bottom of the lake when we hear a voice from the back of the room. “Um, which key is for up?”


(published in the UK, 19 December 2009)

Last modified:02 October 2015 10.24 p.m.
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