How Elumens Vision Station Works

By: Jeff Tyson
The next generation in computer displays gives you a full 180-degree field of view. Learn how the Elumens display works!
Photo courtesy Elumens Corporation

Computer displays have been remarkably resistant to the advances that have affected the rest of computer technology. For example, in 1982 the original IBM PC had a 16-bit processor running at 4.77 MHz. Today's processors are about 1,000 faster. Today's monitors, on the other hand, are still small glass rectangles. No major advances have occurred.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will look at a new computer display technology from Elumens that completely revolutionizes the visualization of digital information. In areas such as space design and simulation (flight, driving or battlefield simulation), this new display completely changes the way you interact with the digital environment!


VisionStation Display

A view of the Elumens VisionStation
Photo courtesy Elumens Corporation

The problem with a typical display is most obvious when playing games. How many times have you entered a room in a game, only to be attacked from the side? The "field of view" in a game is limited to what a standard monitor can show you -- a small, flat rectangle that represents the environment straight ahead. The field of view is at most 50 degrees, and is something like looking at the world through a small porthole. You cannot see anything above, below, left or right unless you use your game controller to "turn" in that direction. This "motion" with the controller is completely unnatural -- in the real world, you instantly move either your eyes or your whole head to look in a different direction, and the motion is fast and instinctive.

You also have your peripheral vision working for you in the real world. Your eyes easily detect motion off to the side and alert you to look that way. With a computer monitor, your peripheral vision is nothing but a big distraction -- it is showing your actual surroundings rather than the digital environment you are playing in.


A North Carolina-based company, Elumens, has designed a display system that takes peripheral vision into account. The VisionStation consists of a large, curved surface (reminiscent of a large satellite dish), a high-resolution data projector and a wide-angle projection lens.

The result is a display that shows you a very wide field of view, up to a full 180 degrees. An Elumens display takes over your entire visual field, including your peripheral vision. You see not only what is in front of you, but everything above, below, left and right. When you want to see what is "beside" you, you simply turn your head and look. For example, in a driving simulator, you can look out both side windows by turning your head just like you would in a real car.

The experience when watching an Elumens display is very interesting. Because it uses your peripheral vision, the sense of motion is very real. Turning your head to look at objects is very natural. Because the screen is completely smooth, there are no distractions.

The VisionStation has a large parabolic shell that is used to display the image projected by the wide-angle lens.
Photo courtesy Elumens Corporation

There are several models in the Vision series, ranging from the VisionStation, for individual use, to the VisionDome VS-5, which can accommodate up to 45 people.

  • Slide 1: The standard VisionStation is 41 inches (104 cm) deep by 63 inches (160 cm) high by 65 inches (165 cm) wide. The display surface has a 5-foot-wide (1.5-m) projection area with a 33-inch (84-cm) spherical radius of curvature for the screen.
  • Slide 2: The VS-3 VisionStation is 106 inches (270 cm) deep by 93 inches (237 cm) high by 136 inches (346 cm) wide. The display surface has a 10-foot-wide (3-m) projection area with a 60-inch (152-cm) spherical radius of curvature for the screen. The VS-3 can accommodate from one to six people.
  • Slide 3: The V-4 VisionDome has a projection radius of 12 ft 3 inches (3.75 m) and can accommodate from two to 10 people using the LightShell. The dome is 10 ft 3 inches (3.1 m) high, 17 ft (5.2 m) wide and 15 ft 11 inches (4.9 m) deep.
  • Slide 4: The V-5 VisionDome has a projection radius of 16 ft 4 inches (5 m) and can accommodate from two to 45 people using the LightShell. The dome is 14 ft 10 inches (4.63 m) high, 19 ft 10 inches (6.1 m) wide and 20 ft (6.1 m) deep.

Key benefits of the VisionStation are:

  • It provides an immersive experience.
  • It does not require cumbersome head gear for virtual environment.
  • It accommodates both real and computer-generated 3-D data.
  • It can be set up by two people in about two hours (three to four hours with the Optional LightShell enclosure).
  • It is portable.
  • It is highly scalable.
  • It is as simple to operate as a traditional monitor.
  • It can be used for a variety of applications.
  • It accommodates a large portion of existing 3-D applications without special porting.

The Vision Series projectors use an LCD projector with resolutions of 1027x768 to 1365x1024 with 24-bit color (16.8 million colors). They support SXGA, UXGA, VGA, SVGA and XGA modes and have HD15, S-Video and RCA connectors. The f-theta lens has a 180-degree field of view and Infinite Depth of Focus. This means that once the lens is focused, everywhere outside the lens is always in focus.


Elumens Image Technology

The f-theta lens has a hemispherical optical assembly that allows it to project over a 180-degree range.

VisionStation uses Elumens TruTheta imaging technology to provide an immersive experience. In other words, because the image is projected to cover a full 180-degree x 135-degree field of view, you feel like you are actually in the scene. Distractions are reduced because your peripheral vision sees the projected image instead of your surroundings beyond the screen. This differs from head-mounted displays (traditionally used for virtual reality), which completely isolate you from the outside world. The team at Elumens believe that the VisionStation is better than virtual reality because you are immersed in the experience without losing contact with your surroundings.

TruTheta combines advanced, 3-D software algorithms with the f-theta lens design to enable high-quality projection on a hemispherical screen. The goal is to create images that are consistently bright, even and in focus. To accomplish the goal, the TruTheta lens distributes pixels equally throughout the hemispherical surface, eliminating distortion.


Another view of the lens

To create the 3-D scenes, Elumens recommends the four-camera process. You set up a scene in a 3-D-animation program as usual, with a single (main) camera following the animation. Once the scene is prepared, you duplicate the original camera four times. The other four cameras are rotated 90 degrees on the camera axis to point at different areas of the scene. The four additional angles are:

  • Camera-left: The camera is rotated 90 degrees to the left of the main camera.
  • Camera-right: The camera is rotated 90 degrees to the right of the main camera.
  • Camera-top: The camera is rotated 90 degrees to the top of the main camera.
  • Camera-bottom: The camera is rotated 90 degrees to the bottom of the main camera.
The scene from each of the four different angles
Image courtesy Elumens

Once the frames of the animation are rendered from all four angles, a program called TruFrame is used to combine the four different scenes into a single scene that provides all the information necessary for 180-degree projection.

The final scene has all five angles combined.
Image courtesy Elumens
A look at the TruFrame interface
Image courtesy Elumens

Typically, frames are rendered at a resolution of 1024 x 1024 pixels. The four separate views are combined to create each TruFrame frame.

Elumens is working with software developers to provide plug-ins for popular 3-D software applications that will automate the 180-degree scene creation process and replace the manual four-camera process. For example, Elumens offers TruShade for Raygun, a plug-in for 3-D Studio Max that uses the Raygun rendering engine to create hemispherical scenes without requiring you to set up multiple camera angles.

Describing the VisionStation is easy, but the description alone does not do justice to the experience of using it. When you sit in front of this system and run a 3-D simulator, the effect is amazing! You really get the sense of motion and depth as you move through the virtual world.


VisionStation Uses

Special thanks to Elumens

With a cost of $19,995 for the basic system, the VisionStation is not targeted for the casual user or game player. It is intended for use in fields such as:

  • Training aid/simulation - Many companies and government agencies are using the VisionStation to set up simulators that provide a much more comprehensive experience than a standard monitor-based system does.
  • Presentation - The VisionStation provides a wonderful environment for demonstrating a product or process.
  • Architectural Design - Planners and architects can use the VisionStation to ensure that their designs are correct before the first brick is laid.
  • CAD/CAM - Manufacturers such as automakers can preview a design more thoroughly than on a typical flat monitor.
  • Science - Scientists and researchers can create detailed simulations that let them feel like they are part of the process.
  • Entertainment - You may see some VisionStations used to provide an entertaining, immersive experience that you would pay to participate in.

While the current models are too expensive for most home users, the VisionStation does pave the way for a revolution in digital imaging. Over the next few years, you can expect Elumens and other display companies to continue to push the envelope in how we view computer data.