Build your own professional-grade holographic display

I started working on low-cost VR, that is, cheap (at least compared to a CAVE or other high-end system) professional-grade holographic display systems about 4 1/2 years ago, after seeing one at the 2008 IEEE VR conference. It consisted of a first generation DLP-based projection 3D TV and a NaturalPoint OptiTrack optical tracking system. I put together my own in Summer 2008, and have been building, or helped others building, more at a steadily increasing rate — one in my lab, one in our med school, one at UC Berkeley, one at UC Merced, one at UC Santa Barbara, a handful more at NASA labs all over the country, and probably some I don’t even know about. Here’s a video showing me using one to explore a CAT scan of a patient with a nasty head fracture:

Back then, I created a new subsite of my web site dedicated to low-cost VR, with a detailed shopping list and detailed installation and configuration instructions. However, I did not update either one for a long time after, leading to a very outdated shopping list and installation instructions that were increasingly divergent from state-of-the-art approaches.

But that has changed recently. As part of an NSF-funded project on paleoceanography, we promised to install two such systems at our partner institutions, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I installed the first one a couple of months ago. Then, I currently have two exchange students from the University of Georgia (this Georgia, not that Georgia) who came here to learn how to build these systems in order to build one for their department at home. To train them, I rebuilt my own system from scratch, let them take the lead on rebuilding the one at our medical school, and right now they’re on the east coast to install the new system at WHOI.

Observing “newbies” following my guide trying to build a system from scratch allowed me to significantly improve the instructions, to the point that I believe they’re now comprehensive and can be followed by first-time builders with some computing knowledge. I also updated the shopping list to again represent a currently-available system, with current prices.

So the bottom line is that I now feel comfortable to let people go wild with the low-cost VR subsite and build their own display systems. If no existing equipment (computers, 3D TVs, …) can be used, a very nice, large (65″ TV), and powerful system can be built for around $7000, depending on daily deals. While not exactly cheap-cheap, one has to keep in mind that this is a professional-grade system, fit for scientific and other serious uses.

I should mention that we have an even lower-cost design, replacing the $3500 optical tracking system with a $150 Razer Hydra controller, but there’s a noticeable difference in functionality between the two. I should also mention that there’s a competing design, the IQ Station, but I believe that ours is better (and I’m not biased at all!).