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 Architectural Shadows

NCSA's ShadowLight-Mirage software helps architecture students create new worlds

While most architecture students spend hour after hour in the studio, drawing, assembling, and resembling their designs with foam board, University of Illinois graduate student Emma Smith designs and creates her ideas virtually and immediately in the CAVE, an immersive virtual reality (VR) environment at NCSA.

Using the CAVE, she is able to walk through her designs, add color and texture, and delete and start again, using a wand (the CAVE's version of a mouse) to create and manipulate shapes.

Smith, a first-year graduate architecture student, is designing a park along the north shoreline of Chicago in the CAVE using an application created by NCSA programmer Kalev Leetaru. Called ShadowLight-Mirage, the software is used by students in Joy Malnar's architecture design studio to create and design three-dimensional worlds inside the CAVE.

To produce their designs, students need only to draw shapes and then select options using the wand. They wear stereoscopic glasses that allow them to see their creations in 3D. The glasses also serve as a tracking device, allowing the computer to track the students' movements and determine where they are looking. Students can walk through their simulated designs, or fly through using the wand. Students can view their virtual worlds from the inside, from above, below, or outside.

According to Leetaru, virtual architectural design is not something that other architecture programs have used often. Most VR architectural applications import models created on the desktop, and allow the user to view the model in a full-scale VR environment.

"This is a quantum leap over what most other schools are doing in architectural design," Leetaru said.

He explained that ShadowLight-Mirage is unique because it give the user the freedom to create, modify and present in the CAVE using one application.

"Traditionally when someone wants to use the CAVE for design, they model their world outside and then import it into the CAVE or to different desktop packages. They don't interact with it," Leetaru said.

Leetaru created ShadowLight-Mirage to fill a need he saw that wasn't being met by other programs.

"There wasn't really an application designed for building worlds around you as you work in the CAVE. I saw that need as I was watching people try to put worlds into the CAVE and saw how difficult it was," he said.

According to Malnar, architecture students normally spend hours drawing and building small-scale models in the studio. Students often disassemble and reassemble their designs before they are satisfied with them, a tedious process that takes time and energy.

She said ShadowLight-Mirage forces her students to think spatially and encourages more free thinking.

"You're here and you can do things very quickly," Malnar said. "It has the potential to force us into thinking about new materials."

ShadowLight-Mirage allows students to immediately feel the effects of their designs, added Malnar. It also lets them add color and texture.

Added Smith, "It's just incredible for spatial awareness. When you build a little model with studio foam board you can only peer into it. You cannot feel the width of a doorway or the height of a ceiling. Here I can walk through doorways. You really have this incredible sense of what it would be like to walk through your building."

The chance to experiment with color also adds to the students' design experience, according to Smith.

"By dealing with color, you also have to realize how the space affects you; if it's calming or if it's energizing," Smith said. "It's amazing. When we get out there we'll have this awareness of how color and texture affect spaces. Being in here I feel like I understand space better, color better."

"These are things that you can't teach in a classroom. Due to the relative nature of color, it's important to be able to see colors at full size and in their correct spatial position. It's crucial to be able to see changes instantaneously," Malnar added.

The relationship between NCSA and the architecture program began when Malnar and Leetaru began working together after Malnar received a fellowship from the NCSA/UIUC Faculty Fellows Program (FFP). The program offers one-year fellowships to UI faculty who are engaged in projects that could benefit from access to NCSA's computing facilities and staff.

Last semester, Malnar's students worked in five three-person teams on CAVE projects using ShadowLight-Mirage. Their assignment was to create a park-like series of islands for an area along the Lake Michigan shoreline on the north side of Chicago with shelters, bike paths and pedestrian walkways. The projects were shown at the ISPACE gallery in Chicago Jan. 2-25.

Leetaru said ShadowLight-Mirage is used often, and also under constant development.

"That's the real beauty of working with them (the architecture students). I get this constant flow of information. I get a sense of what it looks like through their eyes. They help guide me through the parts of the interface that they like and don't like," Leetaru said.

ShadowLight-Mirage can be used by anyone wanting to create a VR world of their own. Umesh Thakkar, an NCSA senior research scientist and visiting assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, uses ShadowLight-Mirage in a program that encourages middle school girls to create virtual worlds. The Virtual Campus Program is experimenting with using ShadowLight-Mirage to create a virtual model of the University of Illinois campus.

For more information on ShadowLight-Mirage, see

For more information on virtual architectural design see

Access Online | Posted 2-11-2003