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Technology Corridor

Virtual reality comes of age in the power industry.
Fortnightly Magazine - July 1 2003

industry was more than $36 billion in goods and services. There were more than 308,000 VizSim systems sold in 2002, and more than 12,000 companies are involved, either as vendors or users of systems worldwide.

While there seems to be an unending number of applications for which VizSim adds value, one constant is that the cost and ease-of-use factors are improving almost daily. As the prices for powerful computers continue to decrease, the ease of developing and using VizSim is increasing. There are many reasons to consider VizSim as a reliable and affordable asset to add to the mix of IT tools used by public utilities in every aspect of their businesses.

Virtual Reality: A Quick History

The roots of visual simulation go far back into the twentieth century, back to the 1931 patent issued to Edwin A. Link for the Link Flight Simulator. His stub-winged, pitching pneumatic monster was able to accurately model the flight characteristics of a variety of contemporaneous aircraft. The Army Air Corp recognized the value of Link's simulators and trained thousands of World War II combat pilots on them. Not long after the war, mechanical simulators controlled by computers started to be put into service, making flight simulation more realistic. These systems often flew closed-circuit TV cameras over scale models of enemy territory. The TV image was displayed in the window of the simulator's cabin. Unfortunately, it was all too easy to fly off the edge of the earth with these simulators, as the camera range was exceeded.

The first success at an interactive, fully computer-generated visual simulation occurred in 1965 at MIT's Lincoln Lab. There, Ivan Sutherland built a system called Sketchpad-an interactive system that made it possible for the user to both create in 3-D and view the images from any position in space. Sketchpad combined a pair of small TV screens, placed one in front of each eye, with a computer powerful enough to redraw a wireframe 3-D graphic image 10 times per second. What made Sketchpad truly revolutionary was the head-mounted display system, which was attached to the ceiling by a mechanical tracking system that told the computer where the user was looking.

By the mid-1990s, virtual reality game centers had sprung up around the world, and millions of people paid $5 to $10 for the opportunity to experience a virtual world. But these over-hyped systems were not up to the demands of serious work. It wasn't until the turn of the century that reliable, powerful computing platforms became affordable enough for wide distribution. Today, a high-end office PC is easily capable of running simulation-based training or data visualization.

Most current VizSim applications don't rely much on the offspring of Sutherland's head-mounted display. But his ideas regarding the ability to interact freely with a three-dimensional computing display and simulation systems has led to a multitude of VizSim systems being used in many areas of public utility-related activities.

A modern VizSim system consists of four main components. The simulation engine is the computer running the actual simulation program and coordinating the system activity. The