Sandia's Virtual Human Body Voyage

The lab's new shell program takes a big step toward making virtual space user-friendly

From the flight deck of Creve Maples' virtual "ship," a CT scan becomes eerily real. Forget foggy two-dimensional slices on paper. He can take you on a 3-D joy ride under the skull, through the brain's folds and park on a tumor.

Sound like a video game? To Maples, head of the Synthetic Environment Laboratory at Sandia National Laboratories, it's a new way of thinking about how people and computers interact.

The former nuclear physicist had an epiphany three years ago that led to the creation of what he calls the Multi-dimensional User-oriented Synthetic Environment, or MUSE: As computational power grows, humans have become swamped in a flood of data they don't have time to analyze effectively.

"The slowest element [in computation] has rapidly become the human being," Maples said. So he set out to design a new software tool to help people understand data using the strongest human senses -- sight and sound.

Unlike other code-eating virtual reality programs, MUSE takes up just 2 megabytes of disk space. That's because it is a shell program, designed to wrap around any kind of downloaded data -- from CAD/CAM and CT scans to satellite imagery and financial information.

Here's how it works: Once data is imported, MUSE creates an environment where the subject is at the center of attention. The user is at the vantage point of a virtual ship, which can move around and manipulate the object through verbal command, a stereoscopic sight and a control panel not unlike a video-game joystick.

In the case of the CT scan, the user can separate the brain from the skull, slice it in half and fly in for a closer look. The original imported data can also be seen on the "walls" of the ship, simply by turning your head left and right.

For demonstration purposes, Maples has imported data on a multi-chip module (from four different data sources) into MUSE. The module can be "run" and analyzed for heat build-up and malfunction.

MUSE's capabilities are getting it attention from the private sector. A military contractor has licensed the system and six other organizations are negotiating with Sandia for rights to use it. Applications include molecular modeling, economic visualizations, manufacturing and education.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is angling to use the system for an exhibit on geologic time and the habitats of the state. "It's great technology for museums," said museum Director Kathryn Matthew.

MUSE is compact and powerful, but it is not cheap to get up and running. Maples says the system can operate on a PC, but the quality is poor and frustratingly slow. MUSE runs best on a Silicon Graphics workstation. With attendant hardware, that makes a price tag from $300,000 to $600,000.

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