JOHN DAVIES: Innovating practical solutions with virtual reality

Faces of Innovation column

By John Davies

Imagine flying around in 3D environments navigating a submarine under the ocean, tracking a satellite in space or standing in a huge kettle mixing iron ore in the region.

Is this a computer game or a new science? It’s a little of both. Actually, it’s a dynamic new tool for Northwest Indiana focusing on innovative solutions to practical problems thanks to Purdue University Calumet.

Welcome to the world of John “Jack” Moreland, the senior research scientist in the Center for Innovation through Visualization & Simulation. His projects include creating a 3D environment for “Mission Ocean” for 1200 Hammond students. Another is bringing to life a space launch called Planck, lofted by the European Space Agency with significant involvement by NASA.

Jack is a new Fellow in the Society of Innovators. To appreciate Jack’s role, it is important to acknowledge Chenn Zhou, who heads mechanical engineering for PUC and also is a Fellow in The Society.

Zhou had the vision for the benefits of this technology called virtual reality. She wanted to bring it to the region and help solve practical problems. She invited Jack to join her. Jack agreed and helped establish the lab.

There is no way I can adequately explain the wonder of this technology.

This is something you have to experience. So I will attempt to share just one example that I have experienced to demonstrate the power of this “communications” tool.

But first, here’s a brief description of the Vis Lab. There are two screens, one on the floor and one on the wall. Basically, you stand on the screen wearing a set of high-tech glasses. As Jack manipulates the hand controls, you find yourself in a computer-simulated environment.

Instead of just watching 3D characters recede and pop out at you, this technology allows you to interact with them. Why is this important? Simply, if you are trying to find a solution to a problem, you can experience it and understand the problem easier than just looking at data. Jack’s role is to translate the experience so a solution can be found faster and better.

When interviewing Jack, I experienced this technology firsthand. One of our steel companies had an issue with uniformly mixing iron ore in a large kettle, and Jack worked with the team to simulate a 3D kettle. I found myself standing inside it as Jack explained how, working with the team, he was able recreate the vessel, identify the problem, and find the solution.

Jack reminds me of the ordinary genius I love to discover as I interview innovators across the region. When I talk with Jack, he emphasizes that he never uses the “I” word. It is because this is a collaborative process, not a singular achievement.

So I’d like to dedicate this column not just to Jack or Chenn, but to all of the ingenious men and women in our colleges and universities who serve Northwest Indiana. Projects like the Vis Lab and the people who staff them will make us great in the 21st century.

John Davies is Managing Director of The Society of Innovators, which is sponsored by Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana Northwest and other principal partners. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer’s and not necessarily that of The Times.