Virtual treadmill takes users anywhere they want to go

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A University of Utah invention simulates walking and running in any environment while you see, smell and hear everything that surrounds you. It's the work of university mechanical and computer engineers.

Inside a makeshift plywood room, computers are interfaced with a robotic arm and harness, a unique wind tunnel, a 6-by-10 foot treadmill and a three-sided screen that takes you any place you need to go.

Dr. John Hollerback with the university's School of Computing said, "Here you don't even think about where you are stepping. You're totally focused on the environment and the experience you are having."

Who needs this experience? Emergency responders needing simulator training. For example, what would it be like walking, running or side-stepping while monitoring the movement of toxic particles?

Aromas will eventually simulate all kinds of smells. The uniquely-designed wind tunnel creates complex wind patterns that carry aromas moving in any direction or intensity, depending on where the user moves.

Gesturing with his hands, Hollerback showed us how the wind flows from the sides around the panorama, giving the user a true sensation of the outdoors. "We can actually change the wind angle in almost a hundred and eighty degree direction. This is the first time someone has built something like this," he said.

The robotic arm pushes and pulls to simulate uneven terrain. Graduate student Sandip Kulkarni felt the resistance while on the treadmill. "I'm going uphill. It's becoming harder to walk," he said.

Kulkarni then looked around him as he moved toward a cooler area where a breeze is blowing. Eventually, even leaves on trees will sync with the wind.

Other applications? A victim of a spinal cord injury who is going through rehab can experience what it's like out in the real environment, feeling sensations and knowing how the legs are performing.

Coordination training for rescuers, psychological studies, even learning how to walk on Mars; you name the place, this device will take you there.

So far, the National Science Foundation has invested $1.1 million in the project over the past five years. Neuroworx, a nonprofit clinic that specializes in rehabilitation for spinal cord injured patients, has already expressed a keen interest in the Utah invention. Negotiations are also underway with another corporation which prefers to remain anonymous.


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Ed Yeates


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