How Brown University’s VR Yurt Gives an Inside Look at Everything from Art to Arteries

by Tony Kontzer

If you’d ever like to walk through a colon, Brown University’s the place for you.

The Ivy League school in Providence, R.I., is putting the finishing touches on its new YURT (Yurt Ultimate Reality Theater), a cylindrical virtual reality space that transports users into wholly immersive 3D visual landscapes — from archaeological digs to close-up tours of human anatomy.

With an outer shape much like that of the traditional shelter of Central Asia’s steppes, Brown’s YURT has an eight-foot radius and conical ceiling. Inside, it projects high-resolution imagery onto the walls, floor and ceiling for complete wrap-around immersion.

Some 69 projectors are powered by a 20-node cluster, with each node running four GPUs. They combine with 145 mirrors and 1.3 miles of video cable to produce an astounding 100 million pixels.

CCV visualization scientist Ben Knorlein adjusts the configuration of the 360 degree projector display.
CCV visualization scientist Ben Knorlein adjusts the configuration of the 360-degree projector display.

The YURT replaces a much loved and used, but relatively antiquated, seven-projector display that no longer met the needs of the school’s faculty. The new resource is expected to open up all sorts of possibilities for scientists and other researchers who felt limited by the previous incarnation.

“After enough years of grumbling, someone decided to do something about it,” said Tom Sgouros, Brown’s virtual reality lab manager, in a talk he gave at the GPU Technology Conference last week. “It was a matter of, ‘This is cool, but wouldn’t it be cooler if we could address what people are complaining about?’”

For instance, the old VR display struggled to blend the edges where the various projected images met, compromising the quality of the experience. That process is now software-controlled, and near seamless. Sgouros said that almost all of the software behind the new YURT is homegrown using open-source code.

Among the many uses the YURT is put to, Sgouros showed an image of a woman inside it exploring a much larger than life colon (but didn’t elaborate). Other planned uses include:

  • To advance the analysis of CT scan data, surgeons at Brown’s Alpert Medical School have proposed using it to create a visual library of CT scan examples.
  • A historian is chomping at the bit to conduct virtual visits to ancient battlefields.
  • English professors want to create mind-bending 3D word clouds of poetry.
  • An archaeologist is interested in recreating dig sites, so they can be further investigated away from the field.

In the meantime, there are still some kinks to be worked out. Sgouros said additional calibrations are needed to refine image engines and the projection of dark images, and that the sound system needs to be rethought.

“We have learned a lot, and there’s a lot left to do,” he said.