New 3-D lab unveiled at the MU Department of Architectural Studies

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | 6:35 p.m. CST; updated 9:20 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Brad Martin, 22, a senior in MU's Architectural Studies Department, poses for a portrait behind a projection screen in the department's new immersion laboratory that allows students to see their designs in 3-D format. Graduate student Ahmed Alawadhi's project is being projected in 3-D on the screen. Martin's class is the first to use this innovative technology at MU.

COLUMBIA — Imagine you are an architecture student who just finished a building design. Now imagine taking a 3-D tour of the building to get a realistic feel for what the space is like.

A new Immersion Visualization Laboratory, known as the iLab, developed by the MU's Architectural Studies Department will allow students to do that by "entering" their designs in the digital world.

Bimal Balakrishnan, assistant professor of architectural studies and one of the creators of MU's iLab, said judging size and space is one of the biggest challenges architects face when designing buildings. He said the iLab will help students see their building's space and understand their design by putting things into proportion.

The typical way students build designs are with sketches and small models made of balsa wood. Balakrishnan said this can cause some problems in designs because the small models don’t give students a feel for the actual proportions of their buildings in regard to their surroundings or in terms of sheer size.

The iLab is not the first to use 3-D technology; Balakrishnan was involved with a similar Immersive Environments Lab while he studied at Penn State.

What separates the MU lab from other 3-D immersion labs is that it's available to undergraduate students. Most other labs are primarily used by graduate students to perform research.

MU's iLab uses three large side-by-side high definition projection screens. The layout allows for students to feel immersed in the projections. The screens are paired with "active shutter" 3-D glasses, which give a similar experience to those worn by people watching 3-D movies,  and software that allows the students to experience the sensation of being "in" their projects.

During a recent demonstration of the system, users walked through a virtual coffee shop. The movements were smooth and natural, and the surrounding environment felt similar to a 3-D movie.

The size of the screens gives the feeling that the user is walking through an actual shop. It gives depth and perception not only to the room but also to the furniture, allowing the user to sense how people and objects would fit into the space. 

Another unique aspect of the iLab is that it was built in-house using parts purchased from commercial vendors. That allowed the staff to build the system at an affordable price, around $85,000. It also means they can update the system independently whenever necessary.

Newton D’Souza, assistant professor of architectural studies, also helped create the iLab. "Most of these immersive technologies are invented in the gaming industry and computer science," he said. "We just adapted them for our use in architecture design."

Balakrishnan said he sees this system being used along side traditional architectural methods such as models and floor plans. "I see this as one piece of the big picture."

The professors also talked about how this system could be used to make a 3-D digital map of the city. The city could use it to train for crisis events and event coordination.

The system was unveiled in December, so the spring semester will be the first chance for students to take advantage of the system.

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