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The virtual chainsaw

Virtual worlds can be seen – one example being the runway in a flight simulator. Researchers have now come a little closer to reality, with virtual worlds that you can even feel. The use of hand tools can safely be practiced in this way.

It looks like a chainsaw. It feels like a chainsaw. It sounds like a chainsaw. And yet it only saws virtually: The “Cybersaw”. As soon as the starter is pulled, the motor starts to roar. With the saw screaming in his hand, the operator applies the real cutting bar to a Perspex tree trunk in front of him. But what he sees, on a projection screen behind the Perspex tree trunk, is a sawhorse in the midst of an idyllic farm scene. He can watch on the screen as the chain blade saws through the tree trunk, whilst with his hands he can feel the resistance of the pine wood and the vibration of the saw. To create the Cybersaw, which was developed under contract to the tool manufacturer Dolmar, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD in Darmstadt used a combination of complex technologies. “Mixed reality” is the term they use to designate systems that combine the real world with virtual reality. Computerized vision software takes care of the optical perception: “There is a camera attached to the Perspex tree trunk. Via light-emitting diodes on the cutting bar, the camera determines the saw’s precise position and transmits it to the virtual image of the chainsaw that can be seen on the screen,” explains Michael Zöllner, who developed the Cybersaw. Further extra features give the Cybersaw a completely natural feeling: The researchers have replaced the tool’s motor and carburetor by electronics and vibration motors, with the result that holding the saw feels just like holding a real chainsaw in operation. The movable Perspex tree trunk offers the saw the resistance of the wood, and the simulated sound of a whining motor allows the operator to become totally immersed in the lumberjack’s world. “Our system has a native interface,” says Zöllner. “In other words, the virtual environment fully corresponds to the real one. Normally, before someone can use a virtual world, you first have to explain the technology to them – how to use data goggles, perhaps. But in this case they can get going straight away with no need for explanations.” Mixed reality environments are not just a gimmick. They make it easier to train people learning to handle complex tools, for instance. The research scientists are also working on the development of medical simulation environments in which health professionals can practice handling endoscopes. In this way they are not only optically immersed in a virtual patient’s body, but can also feel when they hit a vessel wall, for instance.

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