Jack Smith can put mine rescuers in the midst of an underground emergency with lives at stake, all in the calmness of a university research lab.
Smith, a quantum chemist and a research associate for Marshall University in West Virginia, runs the school’s simulation STAGE that immerses emergency responders in a detailed training program. But unlike most simulations, participants don’t have to wire themselves with sensors and markers that prove cumbersome. They simply step onto the STAGE–created by New York-based motion-capture company Organic Motion–and their movements are recorded by 14 cameras and converted to a computer program.
"And we can produce what looks like real smoke and real fire," Smith said of the mine safety program, which was created with the help of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Academy. "[Rescuers] can do anything from put out fires [to] treat leaks and floods in the mines."
Marshall is among campuses worldwide using Organic Motion’s simulation STAGE, a valuable research tool that costs a fraction of traditional motion-capture systems. Andrew Tschesnok, the company’s CEO, said colleges and universities can buy the equipment for $80,000. Other motion-capture systems can cost upwards of $500,000, the company reported.
Officials from Marshall University and the University of Florida–where motion capture is helping war veterans adjust to everyday civilian life–said the simulation’s simplicity allows anyone to use the system, not just the ranks of the tech-savvy.
"Now, practically anyone can walk into the system and experience a virtual mine," Smith said, "regardless of preparation or technology background. This is critical when working with participants where even a keyboard and mouse could be a barrier."
Although motion-capture technology also can be used for preparing soldiers for the war zone, the University of Florida’s Digital Worlds Institute is using Organic Motion’s STAGE to acclimate soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a civilian lifestyle. The university’s simulation includes a trip to the grocery store and driving long distances–two tasks that can be difficult for veterans diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"There’s a mental fog that might make a supermarket a very confusing place" for a veteran returning home, said James Oliverio, director of Florida’s Digital Worlds Institute, which conducts all sorts of research using interactive technologies. "Even being able to concentrate … on getting wheat bread is often times very frustrating for people with these disorders. Even banging into a grocery cart could cause a serious reaction, so it’s very helpful in reintegrating the veteran into normal home life."
Jill Sonke, research director at the campus’s Office of Transdisciplinary Research and Innovation, said the Organic Motion STAGE is much more convenient for researchers and simulation participants. It takes close to an hour for subjects to attach dozens of sensors using other motion-capture systems. Florida’s system can be used within minutes of the participants stepping onto the STAGE, without any sensors — also known as markers — hooked on to the subject.
"Even with the most advanced of these systems, you could have two dozen wires," said Sonke, adding that veterans will be able to access the simulation from home via the internet in the coming years.
"That’s a clumsy situation of asking someone to move naturally," Oliverio said. "Having a wireless system, you step into the STAGE, and the system analyzes your movements. Organic Motion’s whole deal is to get away from these wires and tethers."
Soldiers who were injured in a roadside attack while serving overseas often have trouble driving long distances without having severe reactions, Sonke said. Many of those soldiers must drive, sometimes for hours, to receive treatment at the nearest Veterans Affairs office. This puts veterans at risk for road-rage incidents that could result in a car accident or serious trouble with the law.
"These are things that are not apparent, like a broken arm or a severed limb," Oliverio said. "We have seen that this range of afflictions is invisible, but insidious and damaging to people’s lives and families."
Tschesnok, Organic Motion’s CEO and the creator of the marker-free simulation system, said the STAGE originally was designed for the entertainment industry, but the research potential became clear soon after marketing his technology.
"It’s like a 3D avatar and tracks the person’s bone structure and how the person is moving in real time," he said. "We can become the teleportation device into virtual worlds. … You are the avatar, you’re not just controlling the avatar. You’re interacting in a very natural way with computers."
Tschesnok said Organic Motion’s technology is used by BMC, a high-end Swiss bike manufacturer, to create tailor-made bikes for its customers. Bikers’ movements are analyzed as they pedal on the simulation STAGE, and bikes are recommended depending on a number of factors.
"It’s a Web 3.0 or 4.0 kind of scenario," Tschesnok said. "You’re collaborating online with real people and with virtual people."
At Marshall University, mine rescuers can complete several complex missions that could save lives when oxygen is low or conditions are unstable in a mine. Simulations can allow rescuers to create a barricade inside a mine to reroute air if there is a sudden excess of carbon monoxide that could stifle miners far below ground.
Smith said the STAGE technology could some day allow a group of mine rescuers to virtually venture inside an actual, unstable mine and work as a team to create ventilation as they move through thick smoke.
"You can reach out, grab the parts and assemble them," he said. "You can actually manipulate [real] objects."