3-D Fossett lab to offer virtual trips to Mars

Elizabeth Lewis

Washington University may not own a magic school bus or employ a professor as unique as Ms. Frizzle, but students will soon be able to explore anything from inside of the human body to Mars’ surface. Virtual reality will take a new form when the 3-D Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration opens in the Earth and Planetary Sciences building this coming spring.

The laboratory, a five-year project, will be used primarily for teaching and research and will enable students to feel as though they are on the surface of Mars. Steve Fossett, a professional record setter and alumnus of Washington University, provided considerable funding for the million-dollar laboratory.

The idea for the project came from Ray Arvidson, chairman of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS), and from Fossett.

Fossett is more widely known for traveling around the world in hot air balloons, gliders, sailboats and solo airplanes. At the request of Chancellor Mark Wrighton, Arvidson and a team of students supported several of Fossett’s world record setting balloon missions. The EPS team developed an infrastructure used to track Fossett’s balloon operations. Grateful for the support, Fossett developed Fossett Fellowships to provide research funds for undergraduate students.

The virtual laboratory will allow students to feel as if they are part of a scene by putting on 3-D goggles and seeing stereo, or 3-D images.

Arvidson is excited about the possibilities of this project.

“Imagine if you could walk into a room, put on stereo goggles, and have a sense of actually being there,” said Arvidson.

Fossett also noted that the new addition would expand the options available to students at the University.

“[The laboratory] is an opportunity for students to be involved in the space program,” said Fossett.

The first of its kind in the world, the laboratory is primarily devoted to planetary exploration. Arvidson also plans to use the laboratory to work with NASA’s Mars Rover explorations.

“In terms of where to send the Rover, we can use this facility. Also, we will have a lot more data for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that will be sent in two years,” said Arvidson.

Besides planetary exploration, the lab can also simulate anything that can be seen in 3-D, like being inside of the human body and being able to walk into a crystal and see its atoms.

Within five years, a joystick will be developed that will help students move the scene around them. Undergraduates and graduates will have the chance to aid in the creation of some of this software. Walking through the laboratory before the joystick is created might be harmful because of a lack of depth perception.

“You can’t walk through the scene because you would hit your head on the wall,” said Arvidson.

When the laboratory is first ready for use, however, it will not be open to everyone.

“[The lab] is primarily for research and teaching. If time and data sets exist, it can be used for other purposes,” said Arvidson.

Both Arvidson and Fossett are excited about the opportunities that this lab will provide for the University.

“We want to make sure that Washington University is in the forefront. [The lab] is also in line with Fossett’s interests because he is an explorer,” said Arvidson.

“One reason we are doing this is to offer opportunities at Washington University, which are extraordinary,” noted Fossett. “We think that this will help to attract the very best students.”

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