But the size and expense of room-based virtual reality systems may prove insurmountable barriers to widespread use, said Henry Fuchs, a computer science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is familiar with the CAVE technology but wasn't involved in its development.
While he calls the CAVE2 "a national treasure," Fuchs predicts a smaller technology such as Google's Internet-connected eyeglasses will do more to revolutionize medicine than the CAVE. Still, he says large displays are the best way today for people to interact and collaborate.
Believers include the people at Marshalltown, Iowa-based Mechdyne Corp., which has licensed the CAVE2 technology for three years and plans to market it to hospitals, the military and in the oil and gas industry, said Kurt Hoffmeister of Mechdyne.
In Chicago, researchers and graduate students are creating virtual scenarios for testing in the CAVE2. The Mars flyover is created from real NASA data. The brain tour is based on the layout of blood vessels in a real patient.
Brain surgeon Ali Alaraj remembered the first time he viewed the brain using the CAVE2.
"You can walk between the blood vessels," said the University of Illinois College of Medicine neurosurgeon. "You can look at the arteries from below. You can look at the arteries from the side.... That was science fiction for me."
Would doctors process information faster with fewer errors using CAVE2? That's the question behind a proposed study that would compare CAVE2 to conventional methods of detecting brain aneurysms and determining proper treatment, said Andreas Linninger, UIC professor of bioengineering, chemical engineering and computer science.
But it's not all serious business at the lab.
In his spare time during the past two years, research assistant Arthur Nishimoto has been programming the CAVE2 computer with the specifications for the fictional Starship Enterprise. He now can walk around his life-size recreation of the TV spacecraft.