In Chicago, researchers and graduate students are creating virtual scenarios for testing in the CAVE2. The Mars flyover is created from real NASA data. The brain tour is based on the layout of blood vessels in a real patient.
Brain surgeon Ali Alaraj remembered the first time he viewed the brain using the CAVE2.
"You can walk between the blood vessels," said the University of Illinois College of Medicine neurosurgeon. "You can look at the arteries from below. You can look at the arteries from the side.... That was science fiction for me."
Would doctors process information faster with fewer errors using CAVE2? That's the question behind a proposed study that would compare CAVE2 to conventional methods of detecting brain aneurysms and determining proper treatment, said Andreas Linninger, UIC professor of bioengineering, chemical engineering and computer science.
But it's not all serious business at the lab.
In his spare time during the past two years, research assistant Arthur Nishimoto has been programming the CAVE2 computer with the specifications for the fictional Starship Enterprise. He now can walk around his life-size recreation of the TV spacecraft.
The original technology, introduced in the early 1990s, was called CAVE, which stood for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment and also cleverly referred to Plato's cave, the philosopher's analogy about shadows and reality. It was named by former lab co-directors Tom DeFanti and Dan Sandin.
The second generation of the CAVE, invented by Leigh and his collaborator Andy Johnson, has higher resolution. The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.
"It's fantastic to come to work. Every day is like getting to live a science fiction dream," Leigh said. "To do science in this kind of environment is absolutely amazing."
AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson .