EU: Star Trek virtual reality arrives

European university scientists have designed a virtual reality system that allows users to visit and walk around a digitised environment that will aid the tourist, town planning, architectural and medical sectors. As a test, the scientists' CyberCarpet system enabled visitors to stroll around the Roman Empire Italian town of Pompeii and experience what it was like before it was destroyed by Vesuvius in 79AD.

Universities involved in this Star Trek-style 'holodeck' programme are ETHZ Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, MPS Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, the University of Munich in Germany and La Sapienza University of Rome.

Unlike previous sedentary virtual reality systems and virtual world systems such as Second Life, the part-EU funded CyberCarpet project allows users to experience digitised virtual surroundings in a comparatively natural way. It consists of a platform four metres across with a series of treadmill tracks able to detect the walking movement of a user.

A specially developed computerised algorithm ensures the tracks move in response to the user's movements. The same algorithm notes the location of the user on the platform, to make sure he or she does not fall off. The user is equipped with a special helmet with antennae-like cameras that records the user's gestures and postures. A special pair of glasses fitted with monitors allowing the user to see the virtual world as they would if they were freely strolling around and touching its digitised features.

Planners could use the system's visualisation software to create new cityscapes whose utility and attractiveness could be tested by users. The system could also be valuable for sports training or simulation of dangerous situations, for instance in fire-fighting training.

Speaking at a European Commission assessment of the project, Marc Ernst of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cyberkinetics speculated on other uses: "For example, in medicine for the rehabilitation of people with motor impairments, or to support architects who want to visit their virtual buildings with their clients."