A pair of sharks swam just feet from my face, suspended amid a turquoise sea that rippled gently with waving seaweed.
    A few moments later, I traveled the pathways and alleys of a small Portuguese town, balancing precariously on a rock wall, looking down into a boiling, raging river.
And then I was off to Darfur, Sudan, checking out the interior of an ostentatious $1 million apartment, peeking into the bathroom and examining the contents of the medicine cabinet.
Calm down Trekkies, I had not somehow tapped into the technology of the Star Trek franchise, with Scotty beaming me from place to place as effortlessly as you would change a TV channel: I had discovered the latest technology at Fayetteville Technical Community College — its new 3D imaging system that will be utilized starting this month at FTCC’s Advanced Visualization and Interactive Design Center.
    {mosimage}The center, located in the  Harry F. Shaw Virtual College Center, is a $4 million project funded by Fort Bragg, Pope Air Force Base, the BRAC Regional Task Force, Microsoft, Dell and the state community college system. The system brings 3D technology to the masses, allowing all 3D images created by the computer to be loaded into an online Learning Resources Depository, where any student in North Carolina — K-12, community college, or the state university system — can retrieve the objects for study on computers equipped with inexpensive digital viewers similar to Adobe Acrobat.
Before taking the virtual tour of the ocean floor and the quaint Mediterranean village, which took place in a subterranean section of the Harry F. Shaw Virtual College Center called “The Cave,” Bob Ervin, FTCC vice president for learning technologies, took a group of faculty members to a screening room — the nerve system of the new technology — where he provided special 3D glasses that allowed the viewing of virtual objects created by the system.
    Leave behind your preconceptions of those cheesy paper glasses your grandmother and a theater full of movie goers wore while munching buttered popcorn and watching the 3D version of The House of Wax in the ‘50s, or the spectacles that come in cereal boxes allowing you to view Tony the Tiger or Toucan Sam in three dimensions — these glasses were sleek and high-tech: imagine the love child of Microsoft and Oakley.
    As a roomful of rapt instructors and administrators looked on through their cyber specs, Ervin’s assistant produced a beautiful blue Suzuki motorcycle that leaped off the projector screen and into our laps. The motorcycle hologram was constructed by California-based Eon Reality — the software company helping bring this technology to FTCC — to be used as a holographic display at a convention in Las Vegas. A prototype of the motorcycle had been taken apart by Eon Reality, allowing the company to scan each part and recreate an exact virtual duplication.
    “With this type of technology available, why would we give a student in a classroom a 2D picture of a heart and say learn the parts of the heart?” said Ervin. “Now, we have the capability to render that heart, put it on a screen, take a pair of glasses and turn that heart, take it apart and look at the ventricles; I can engage that student and help him see things he’s never seen before.”
    Ervin says the same technology will be used at FTCC to give dental assistant students a virtual human head, complete with muscles, nerves, blood vessels, bones and teeth to work from while learning their craft.
    “That same model, I’m also giving to our funeral service restoration folks, because they teach a class on restoring bodies,” said Ervin, “That way, when a relative gives them a photograph and says this is the way I want the departed to look, they can go in and learn facial reconstruction. It can also be used in anatomy and physiology and biology.”
    And it can also be used for military and industrial applications.
    After the floating motorcycle zoomed back into cyberspace, Ervin showed a suspended 3D model of an M-16 made from a training manuscript and a photograph. Just like any GI in training, the person manipulating the computer controls could strip the whole rifle down to its separate parts and rebuild it on-screen — minus the screaming drill instructor.
    The military applications for this technology are as numerous as the number of lives that could be saved on the battlefield with the system, said Bill Griffin, dean of business programs at FTCC
    “Just imagine, rather than sending soldiers into a hostile town they know nothing about, with this system you can recreate that town and they will know every inch of it before they go into battle,” said Griffin as he met with FTCC faculty and representatives from Fayetteville State University to discuss the technology and how it could be shared between the schools. “Another area we want to focus on is the Wounded Warriors program; this would give disabled soldiers the training they would need to move on in their careers.”
    Other possible applications Griffin said students at FTCC and FSU could glean from the 3D program include video gaming, Geographic Information Systems, engineering, architecture and forensic science.
“You could use this to recreate a crime scene for forensics students to study,” said Griffin.
    The grouping of faculty and administrators were particularly intrigued by the computer gaming possibilities, which could serve as the “hook” needed to make this technology attractive to a generation raised on PlayStation and Nintendo.
    Ervin also pointed out the manufacturing and fabricating possibilities, referencing the need for outdated aeronautical parts.
    “We’re working with Golden Leaf on the aging airline industry in North Carolina,” said Ervin. “In the eastern part of our state they have a lot of aging aircraft and the parts are no longer available, so how do we build parts? We advocate taking a 3D scan of that part and turning it into a CAD drawing that I can hand off to a machining company that can reproduce that part.”
    Ervin said FTCC students, who will learn over a period of 16 weeks how to create the 3D images and other virtual applications, could use the knowledge gained from the technology to land jobs paying in excess of $200,000. At the end of that 16-week period, students may also transfer to Wake Community College to work on a degree in creating computer games.
    Or they can simply slink down to The Cave and swim with the sharks.

Contact Tim Wilkins at tim@upandcomingweekly.com

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