IUPUI's Chauncey Frend explores time and space through virtual reality
Mar. 30, 2016
Walking through the courtyard of a 250-acre villa in ancient Rome, with a soft breeze ruffling your hair and the gentle warmth of the sun on your face, you enter a great hall with Roman statues scattered around and a large banquet spread laid out in front of you. One by one, you smell the culinary delights typical of first-century Rome.
Like stepping into a time machine, this virtual reality reconstruction of an ancient Roman villa on the Programmable Immersive Peripheral Environmental System using Oculus Rift is just one of the projects Chauncey Frend busies himself with on a daily basis.
Indeed, there’s not much that isn’t cool about what Frend does for a living. Since he was in high school, Frend has been tinkering with audio and video production, sparking his impressive career in immersive research technologies.
Frend was a bioinformatics major in 2003, when his love for informatics and computing grew. “I loved the idea of informatics and using computing from the data we can get through observations in the lab, and putting it all into some sort of algorithm to use the computer as a microscope,” he says.
He started out making 3D films as an undergraduate, and with his chemistry and biology knowledge, he began to add smells to these films -- a technique that wowed the Advanced Visualization Lab at IUPUI, the main support unit for visualization-related activities at IU. He was offered an internship at the AVL in 2008, where he was given his own space to work on projects. Once he graduated, he became a full-time IU employee as an analyst/programmer, completing his M.S. in Media & Science in 2012 while working at the AVL.
Frend’s passion in immersive environment design shines through in his daily work. Even as a postgraduate, he continued pushing the boundaries of augmented reality, when he completed a graduate school project for which he built a video game over a hallway.
The user was given a Nerf gun painted black, which was motion tracked, and a pair of see-through glasses. As the user looked down the hallway, they could see the physical hallway with robots approaching from the far end. The user could shoot the Nerf gun at the robots. “That’s all it was. But the ability to overlay data over the real world lets you do the same things you do with computers every day,” Frend explains. And this is what excites him when it comes to applying virtual reality systems to IU researchers’ ground-breaking work.
The Programmable Immersive Peripheral Environmental System device is just one of Frend’s current projects, which he gets to showcase at conferences such as the 2015 Supercomputing conference in Austin, Texas, and the Engineering Reality of Virtual Reality conference in San Francisco this month. The system is a tool for VR developers to afford a custom approach to programming and controlling environmental feedback device behaviors. In other words, people like Frend spend countless hours developing hardware and software to create systems that bring researchers’ or developers’ ideas to life, such as the immersive environmental system. “The idea behind the Programmable Immersive Peripheral Environmental System was that we could provide folks who don’t do a lot of computer programming or electrical engineering with hardware that they can control with timers or sensors to enhance the user experience,” which is how wind, heat, and smell could be incorporated in the ancient Rome reconstruction.
In fact, Frend spends a lot of his personal time building gadgets that will do just that. “I don’t have any formal training in electrical engineering, but the system itself has a circuit system in it that I made at home. I funded all that myself to start with.” And that’s a big achievement, considering he is currently working with the Indiana University Research and Technology Corporation to license and patent the system.
Aside from his collaboration with the School of Informatics on the ancient Rome project, Frend works on a large range of projects with various IU departments. “I didn’t realize that there is this diverse community of researchers wanting to do virtual reality at IU or anything else that is virtual and digital that would need help from University Information Technology Services. Being able to work with them is the best part of this whole experience.” His collaborations have led to building science simulators for the School of Dentistry, working with undergrads on virtual reality gaming projects, collaborating with the School of Fine Arts for a gallery exhibition, generating educational 3D films for middle school students, and creating software used in a collaboration with Riley Hospital for Children -- just to name a few.
But it’s not all just programming, creating, and collaborating. Frend and his wife Rachel, who is an administrative coordinator for UITS IT Training in the Informatics and Communications Technology Complex, are avid Disney fans and fulfil their need for all things Disney each year by frequenting Disney World. They even got married at Disney World’s Boardwalk resort. Besides pursuing Disney, you can find Frend ice fishing once a year, as well as skiing and hiking on occasion -- he is an Eagle Scout after all!
Frend’s peers see him as relentless when it comes to pushing the boundaries of what the Advanced Visualization Lab can do. “In my opinion, you can’t really get anywhere unless you try out new opportunities and check things off the list,” he says. “At IU, it’s not about the bottom line. It’s about the quality of the education and the quality of the research. We’re here to enrich that.”
He adds, “I’m open to the craziest of crazy ideas. If anyone wants to work with me on trying out new ideas, I’m open to talking, and I’m excited to!”