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Virtual Reality Upgrades Provide New Perspectives for Students and Researchers
Virtual Reality Upgrades Provide New Perspectives for Students and Researchers
AZ Live

Magnified approximately 12 times its normal size and suspended in midair, cardiac musculature and pulmonary veins protrude from the center of the room. Wearing a special motion sensory headset, you walk up and peer closer. You now maneuver and travel the interior of the massive human heart, visible through the aorta. This is the reality of scientific visualization technology in the University of Arizona’s Laboratory for Immersive Visualization Environments (AZ-LIVE).  

Headed by scientific visualization specialist Marvin Landis, the AZ-LIVE lab is also referred to as “The Cave”, an allegorical reference to the Cave of Plato’s Republic and a universal moniker for immersive virtual environments. The lab has been active on campus since 2004. Currently, research computing in AZ-LIVE allows researchers, students, and faculty to explore their work and to perceive, navigate, and interact with three dimensions outside of the computer screen, as they can do with objects in the physical world. Advances in real-time rendering technology further the stereographic environment experience.

Scientific visualization, a process by which numerical data is transformed into graphics to better illustrate information scenarios to researchers, has been done at UA since 1990. From renderings of graphics on a desktop computer, data is then extrapolated into a three dimensional illustration to be viewed as the semblance of an object in space. Providing context for abstract conceptualizing, these virtual reproductions are effective tools for both researchers and instructors.

“You have a natural way of being able to walk around the data, stick your head in the data, and the computer’s doing all the projections necessary,” says Landis, “It’s just so much easier to walk through the model in AZ-LIVE than it is trying to do it on a desktop machine. It’s tough navigating through a building on just a 2D display with just a 2D mouse.”

Similar to the stereographics displays used in a 3D movie theater, AZ-LIVE utilizes multiple displays to surround and immerse the user into a virtual scene. Motion sensory head tracking devices worn by users inform the spatial and rotational relationship between the graphics and the user, permitting viewers to move naturally through the space.

Advances in AZ-LIVE have continued since the acquisition of Unity gaming software in 2013. The game development system, equipped with powerful rendering capabilities used to create interactive 3D content, has evolved the virtual experience to include the effects of shadows, gravity, and physics. Those are aspects of virtual reality that users, such as Oscar Blazquez, professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at UA, find useful. 

“To me it’s an incredible tool,” says Blazquez. “We live in a 3 dimensional world, and the students are taught in 2D. It’s great for them to bring their design into a space where they can be immersed in it.”

AZ-LIVE has proved an integral tool in the curriculum of Blazquez’s beginning landscape architecture studio design course. Inputting their final design’s into AZ-LIVE, architecture students are given the opportunity to physically walk through their design space, a process Blazquez says has been fundamental for instructing students to conceptually understand proportion and scale.

“Another advantage is that after students develop their models and scenes on their own laptop workstations, bringing it into AZ-LIVE gives them a space to collaborate with others in their group,” says Landis, “That sharing experience with other people is a really valuable one during the design and creation of their models”.

In addition to architecture and landscape planning, AZ-LIVE collaborates on research projects in chemistry, medical reconstruction, atmospheric sciences, mathematics, and psychological models.

A compelling tool in the reconstruction and investigative nature of scientific visualization, AZ-LIVE continues to facilitate the research potentialities for both students and faculty. Technological advancements such as those with the Unity gaming system progress the dynamics of virtual reality to include aspects of a greater fabricated reality.


If you would like to find out whether your instructional or research projects can utilize the 3D immersive environment, sign up for a demonstration. You will be able to travel through the heart’s aorta, visit an ancient archaeological site, fly over and into a Mars crater, or just move furniture and adjust the lighting in a virtual apartment. Contact AZ-LIVE Support at to schedule your demonstration.