IU Spinout CyUtil Helps VR Developers Create More Immersive Products

Imagine you’re a world history teacher in rural Indiana who wants to give students the chance to tour the great pyramids of Egypt—feeling the sun’s warmth on their faces and smelling the aromatic spices used to cook the food eaten by pharaohs—without leaving the state. Thanks to virtual reality technology being developed by Indiana University spinout CyUtil, immersive, simulated trips abroad may soon be possible.

CyUtil was founded last year by Chauncey Frend, a programmer and analyst in IU’s Advanced Visualization Lab. Frend wanted to help software developers creating their own virtual reality or augmented reality systems to add immersive environmental conditions, like heat or wind, to their sounds and visuals.

Late last year, CyUtil launched cy.PIPES (Programmable Immersive Peripheral Environmental System), a project Frend has been working on since he was an undergraduate at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. With cy.PIPES, he wanted to prove that it’s possible to incorporate environmental conditions into VR and AR software systems without having to spend a ton of time or money. ever-changing factors like wind direction are automatically computed and rendered to users “as they would expect from the virtual environment they are immersed in,” he says.

Cy.PIPES came about as a result of Frend’s day job at the Advanced Visualization Lab. He was fielding requests from students and professors across campus who wanted to incorporate VR and AR into their research projects. Some of them wanted their simulations to include things like a blast of air or humidity.

“It was a challenge to meet all those requests,” Frend recalls. “Cy.PIPES sprung out of the necessity to quickly build custom VR and AR. People enjoy more entertaining educational material, and VR bridges that gap.”

Meanwhile, as Frend was building cy.PIPES prototypes, IU was getting more excited about his work. At a supercomputing conference in 2015, Frend wowed the audience with a virtual tour through a Roman palace circa 128 A.D., complete with wafting incense and gentle breezes. In 2016, his innovation was named Best Research Demonstration at the IEEE VR conference.

“It’s like video game graphics—they’re not necessarily photo realistic, but you feel like you’re taking a field trip,” Frend explains. “In the past, there was no easy, low-cost way out of the box to apply environmental conditions to VR projects.”

Today, Frend is trying to get the word out to developers at creative studios, asking them to apply cy.PIPES to their content. So far, the tool is being used by IUPUI informatics students and at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where students use cy.PIPES to interact with virtual wind turbines.

CyUtil is thus far a partnership between Frend and his wife Rachel, who handles the venture’s business and marketing side. The company is still investigating how and in which industries cy.PIPES could be especially helpful, but Frend plans to let early user feedback guide further refinement of the product. He believes there are applications for cy.PIPES in green energy training, education, real estate and historic tours, gaming, racing and flight simulation, and more.

Frend does not know of any other competing control boxes on the market, and he has filed a patent for his interface between VR/AR systems and environmental feedback devices. So far, he and Rachel have funded the business themselves, but he says he’ll pursue partnerships if he starts “getting signals to scale in a specific use case.”

Frend looks at VR and AR systems as a way for the computer to present “a whole bunch of illusions” to the body.

“There is a range of devices that can be built, but the problem is control,” he says. “How do you synchronize environmental senses and allow people to experiment? We want to put these tools into the hands of other developers building VR systems and sell them for a reasonable price.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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