What is a VR CAVE?
So you’ve heard of virtual reality (VR) headsets and maybe even experienced a VR yourself, but have you ever seen a VR CAVE?
VR CAVE—an acronym for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment—is an immersive digital environment that enables groups of people to experience a virtual reality together.
“CAVE technology, and the name, CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment, was developed at University of Illinois, Chicago 31 years ago,” said Emma-Jane Alexander, technical sales consultant at Mechdyne Corp. “The name CAVE was misused to describe all manner of virtual reality systems, just to capitalize on the name. Trying to fight this was pointless, the trademark was opened and CAVE entered the vernacular, like Kleenex, in the mid-2000s. Oddly enough, today, the word CAVE is, more or less, back to describing the original configuration.”
A VR CAVE begins with a structure that traditionally includes flat walls, or faces, and uses rear projection technology to display a VR environment all around the user(s). Other approaches to creating immersion include fisheye and ultra-short throw projection. As the technology is evolving, new options are becoming available—like curved dvLED screens.
Users typically wear stereoscopic glasses while inside the CAVE that enable them to see and interact with 3D graphics. However, similar immersive projected environments can be used without headsets to make the experience more accessible to groups in public spaces like museums.
“There are many different types of VR CAVE solutions encompassing a wide variety of technologies to comprise the final configuration of the system, and many are custom tailored to meet the end users operational requirements and price performance outlines,” said John Mould, commercial development manager at ST Engineering Antycip SAS.
These social collaborative environments can be used in education, entertainment, business, and other sectors. Some specific use cases include engineering where teams can model different systems and navigate virtual prototypes before beginning investment. CAVEs can also be used in a university setting to expose students to new environments or in aviation to simulate flights for new pilots. NASA has used VR CAVEs to put astronauts in mission scenarios that would be otherwise impossible to replicate.
“It is not uncommon for users (private sector executives, educators, philanthropists, researchers, engineers, artists etc.) to be unwilling to wear a headset to participate in an immersive experience; often citing that they feel isolated, encumbered, and albeit temporarily disengaged from their peers,” claimed Alexander. “Whether for iterate small design reviews, or large complex multifaceted decisions, bringing people close to their own data, and being able to maintain eye contact, social present, helps to them to develop trust in their decision-making tools; CAVEs and large-scale immersive systems are an excellent fitting solution for these client needs.”
“In all of these cases the companies and the people benefit by being together, reviewing real-time 3D data at life scale enabling them to draw better insights faster,” added James Pietsch, director of global accounts at Scalable Display Technologies.
Installation Process for a VR CAVE
Installation of VR CAVEs begins with the space and then the projectors are added for graphics and loudspeakers in the case of immersive audio experiences. With current technology CAVEs can even be portable to bring an immersive experience to places like trade shows. Pietsch also said that one evolution we are seeing in installations is curving the corners of the CAVE for a more immersive feel.
“As CAVEs are generally custom designed to meet a project’s and room’s requirements, the possibilities of where they can be installed is very wide and just requires advanced planning to identify the right approach,” said Mould.
“CAVEs involve a structure, displays—whether projection or LED, computers, and software. They can be installed wherever the client has sufficient space depending on the size/design,” added Alexander. “A typical CAVE is a 10 x 10 cube. This is 10 x 10 only if LEDs or front projection are used. If rear projection is used, allow for throw distance. Then, you also need staging space and computer space. Five- and six-sided CAVEs require better structure.”
Benefits and Limitations of a VR CAVE
As with any VR experience, the benefit of VR CAVEs is the ability to transport users into scenarios that they wouldn’t be able to access normally. For businesses, VR CAVEs also enable team members to collaborate virtually and see the same thing, even if they are physically in different places.
CAVEs are especially suited to complex datasets involving spatial information—like complex system designs, BIM data, digital twin representation, immersive generative art experiences, collaborative design review, and more, according to Alexander. “The CAVE and large-scale immersive installations continue to provide a human-like intuitive perspective, and capitalizes upon our basic need to connect with others, during learning, research, and creative experiences,” she said.
“One of the most powerful elements in any business interaction is human connection and a VR CAVE combines both the human and the digital world to fuse together in a way that fosters creativity, improves analysis and enables better decision making,” added Pietsch.
VR caves can be very versatile and built around a customer’s budget. However, there are some limitations to where they can be installed. Hilary McVicker, vice president of sales and marketing at The Elumenati said ambient light can often pose an issue for installers. VR CAVEs and other immersive projected environments require near-darkness for users to be able to see the graphics well. However, LED-based CAVE systems are an alternative that don’t require the same level of lighting control.
VR CAVEs are also an expensive investment, and although there are often options to fit different budgets, Mould said a good quality final product often comes with a hefty price tag.
“Limitations with solutions (technology or otherwise) usually result from underdeveloped needs that have yet to be explored and fully formed,” said Alexander. “Before investment in technology—or any product/service–there needs to be a deep discovery phase where dialogue is free flowing two way, and open. At Mechdyne, we take great care and attention to enquire about project stakeholders’ interests, end user experience, metrics for success, anticipated return on investment, to ensure that we are listening to the client, and supporting their vision development.”
The Future of VR CAVEs
VR CAVEs have so many potential use cases and the technology is sure to continue evolving to meet the challenges posed. Pietsch said he expects implementation of CAVEs regardless of size to continue as more end users realize their potential.
“People are very excited about it so I think we’re going to see more innovation,” McVicker said. “What’s cool is the innovation that’s happening on the content and the software side as the tools for real-time content evolve and there’s just so much more you can do in these spaces than you could five or 10 years ago.”
Virtual production is a segment of the AV market that is quickly evolving and CAVEs have become an increasingly desirable part of that with their versatility and adaptability. They will present solutions for so many challenges, some of which are yet to be discovered.
“More than ever, in a post pandemic world, our deep need to connect on a human-to-human level is present and growing. CAVEs and large-scale immersive systems serve to engage, inspire, and connect people with data and digital experiences,” Alexander said. “Whether than means taking a class on a virtual visit to a site otherwise inaccessible, engaging those with neurodivergent needs and creating a persistent learning-mode based on highly engaging experiences, or creating virtual production capabilities for creative use
by theater, film schools, and visual effects.
“CAVEs and large-scale immersive systems support our human need for story telling; sharing our experiences to support, teaching, research, client engagement, decision making, collaborative review of data to support engineering practices, or the sharing our cultural and historical data to support social value,”