Daily Iowan: Virtual Soldier May Help NASA, Amusement Parks

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

By Max Freund
Daily Iowan

Daily Iowan: Virtual Soldier May Help NASA, Amusement ParksSantos, the University of Iowa virtual soldier computer program, is continuing to reach above and beyond his original call of duty.

While Santos has been in operation for the past eight years, the program and its creators are now working toward contracts with NASA and amusement parks.

By expanding the virtual-soldier program into new realms, the creators see a possibility to benefit many aspects of human life.

That can be something as specific as testing what will happen on a new roller coaster by programming Santos to be a 5-6, 190-pound man with a mild left knee sprain.

"They have rides that a bunch of people from a great cross-section of the human race come in; how do we make sure that these people are secure and these rides are fun?" said Steve Beck, the research and development project manager.

Researchers can also test Santos in a variety of suits and situations, such as dressing him in an oversized amusement entertainer costume.

This test could help parks with potential liabilities that come from suits being extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous.

"Imagine the PR nightmare of a 200-pound guy in one of these suits, falling over on a little girl right in front of her parents," Beck said. "It would be a big deal, and we want to make sure that it doesn't happen."

Amusement parks are only one area the avatar may be able to help, Beck said.

"If everything you see is for humans, and everything you see is made on a computer, you need a human on a computer," said Tim Marler, a senior research scientist.

The program began with a $2.5 million military contract in 2003, and biomedical-engineering Professor Karim Abdel-Malek and his team of 40 designed a virtual soldier to improve vehicle and equipment safety for the military.

"We are trying to save lives and save money," Beck said.

Monetary agreements have not been completed, but by pushing the avatar into commercial contracts, Malek and his team look to expand Santos' market.

Because these tests would otherwise have to be conducted with human subjects, Santos' virtual reality allows for easier, safer, and more affordable testing, Malek said.

This more streamlined approach to product testing is what has made NASA another possible client.

Because inflated space suits are stiff and even painful for astronauts, Santos can use "predictive capabilities" to design them better, Beck said.

"Just wearing the space suit, they intentionally make the gloves very tight on the finger tips, and it just beats up your fingers," Marler said.

They also hope to use Santos in creating a safer entrance into the atmosphere while in a space capsule. The avatar can predict whether astronauts could safely reach all controls during a violent re-entry.

These potential projects for NASA and amusement parks are only the beginning, as sports medicine and domestic products may be on the horizon, Marler said. This ability to expand comes from Santos' unique skills.

"We have the ability to predict dynamic motion," Beck said. "Nobody else can do that; it is the game changer."