Imagine you’re immersed – virtually – in the rings of Saturn. The ship moves with your body, reacting subtly yet swiftly. Armed with a remote control and your talent for dodging flying objects without losing your balance, you blast through asteroids hurtling past on all sides. One speeding chunk of ice escapes your notice, hits with a crack. Spidery veins branch across the glass, and you’re thrown clear of the ship.

design stage

Joe Kniss, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science,
and interdisciplinary collaborators at the University of New Mexico
was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet.

Except for playing at the gentler level – the one without the throwing – that was this writer’s experience trying the hexdex. The research project by Joe Kniss, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science, and interdisciplinary collaborators at the University of New Mexico was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet.

Education has been core to the project. After Kniss and a mechanical engineering colleague designed and built the first hexdex, graduate students built the second from start to finish under Kniss’ supervision.

“Every aspect of standing that up, making it work, making it dance – a student had a hand in that,” he said.

Kniss said the platform is similar to what’s used in NASA flight simulators, but on a smaller scale. The hexdex is a six-sided platform supported by six arms allowing movement with six degrees of freedom: up/down, left/right, front/back, twist, pitch and roll. Two hexdexes are set inside a larger platform that rotates while maintaining the hexdexes’ orientation. The platform interacts with a dome or other supersized screen, immersing the player in the action. A remote control provides additional functions, like shooting and acceleration.

In passive mode, the hexdex moves with the player. For example, in the asteroids game, the player shifts his weight to rotate the view. When playing in active mode, the hexdex also responds to what’s happening on the screen, for example by pitching the player off when he hits an asteroid.

Kniss’ main interest in the project is as a scientist and researcher. Even the games have scientific elements. For example, the environment of the asteroids game was created using NASA Cassini spacecraft footage from a mission to Saturn moon Titan.

The research is also part of a larger UNM ARTS Lab project in interactive dome applications funded by the National Science Foundation’s Partnership for Innovation. Domes, known popularly for their use in planetariums, have many applications, such as scientific simulations and immersive art. ARTS Lab has a small dome for experimenting.

Innovation works in mysterious ways. Kniss started developing the hexdex because he missed skateboarding and snowboarding in Idaho, where he grew up and where the powdery snow provided soft landings in case of accident. He said the hexdex has “the feel and fun of skateboarding without the road rash, without the broken bones.”

design stage

Two hexdexes on the partly assembled rotating stage.

The hexdex was also inspired by another surprising experience: When he saw “Back to the Future Part II” at age 12, Kniss just had to have that hoverboard. He uses a wheel-less pink skateboard with the hexdex in homage to the movie.

“When I was 12 I believed that anything was possible, and it turns out it is,” he said. Though it doesn’t fly, the hexdex is built to feel like coasting on air. The arms are powered using compressed air to cushion players’ joints. “I want it to be very soft and forgiving,” Kniss said. “Air makes it feel like you really are floating on a cloud.”

The hexdex can be used as an athletic training device. “Extreme sports are about spatial orientation,” Kniss said, and using the hexdex is all about balance.

The two-hexdex configuration isn’t just for two-player games. Moving between the hexdexes can “help you learn to train yourself to jump, maneuver and land,” he said.

Making – and learning from – mistakes is part of education, including athletics. “Training requires you to fall,” Kniss said. Using the hexdex in an environment controlled for safety, a player can “incrementally develop those skills without the injuries.”

The project has been truly interdisciplinary, involving faculty and students from computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, architecture.

The design of the hexdex is still being tweaked. When it’s finished, “there should be a moment when I’m able to forget I’m in a virtual environment,” Kniss said.

He said the science is more important than making money from the project. “It would be exciting to release everything about the design to open source,” he said.

Seeing the hexdex in action, one might suppose it would be too expensive to duplicate. Kniss said commercial products with only part of the functionality of the hexdex can cost $100,000. The cost to design and build the hexdex was only $2,000, and Kniss anticipates using less expensive components in future versions.

Kniss received a doctorate and master’s degree from the University of Utah and bachelor’s degree from Idaho State University. He previously worked for Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Nvidia, Los Alamos National Lab, University of Utah and Idaho National Engineering Lab. He specializes in computer graphics, scientific visualization, pattern recognition and classification, medical imaging, parallel and stream computing, sensitivity and uncertainty analysis, and decision making.