VR in Western’s Research Park
By Chris Sinal
Hidden behind the storied halls of Saugeen-Maitland Hall, across the formidable
currents of the Thames River and past the treacherous vehicular dangers of
Windermere Rd. sits an area of the university shrouded in mystery and intrigue — the
Western Research Park.
Could it be that in this area of Western, secret experiments attempt to create
zombies, killer-robots, earthquake machines and other hallmarks of cartoonish
super-villainy? Not really.
Nonetheless, The Gazette decided to investigate some of the interesting things
that exist within the Park.
In today’s research environment, increasing strings attached to provincial
and federal government research grants demand that universities commercialize
their research to an extent.
“The Research Park is intended as a transition environment for companies
that are starting out and depend on research activities within the university,” says
Nils Petersen, Western’s VP-research. “It is intended to be for
tenants that have some kind of a give and take with the university. It has
to be a two-way street.”
The list of Research Park tenants runs the gamut of evil sounding names, including
Science and Tech Integration, Inc., Dell Tech Laboratories and the London Biotechnology
Commercialization Centre. Clearly, if a super-laser capable of destroying the
moon were built anywhere in the Park, it would be in the building with the
most unintelligible name — the National Research Council Integrated Manufacturing
“The idea [of the IMTI] is to increase the competitiveness of the manufacturing
industry in Canada,” says Georges Salloum, director general of the IMTI. “Our
work is primarily used by the aerospace, medical, electronics and equipment
While the IMTI is involved in a number of interesting projects, two that deserve
special attention in the quest to highlight interesting ventures on campus — particularly
those that involve lasers and zombies — are laser consolidation and the
Virtual Environment Technologies Centre.
Lasers intended to create things, rather than destroy the moon
Gazette File Photo
“IT’S CALLED A ‘LASER’.” Though Dr. Evil
uses his ‘laser’ in hopes of taking over the world, Western
researchers are do-gooders whose lasers are not attached to sharks.
“We use a laser to consolidate powder at the micron size (one-millionth
of a metre) and make three-dimensional shapes with this powder,” Salloum
The technology is used to build complicated shapes that cannot be made through
traditional methods such as casting or molding, he says, noting lasers are
used to create sonar shells for submarines and to build and repair turbine
blades and impellers. “This work is [unmatched] by any other group in
the world,” Salloum adds.
Using the alliterative “free-form fabrication” technology, shapes
are created with computer-aided drafting technology, then transmitted for fabrication.
Construction time varies depending on the complexity of the shape, ranging
from one hour to days.
Apart from creating shapes that would be impossible to create using traditional
methods, laser consolidation allows the IMTI to fabricate objects out of unusual
materials, including complex polymers and copper, nickel and cobalt alloys.
“These techniques have applications everywhere,” Salloum says. “We
work with several companies here in Canada, in the United States, in Europe and
in Japan. We have collaboration from around the world.”
Can virtual reality be used to train zombies? No, it cannot.
If you’ve seen the movie Lawnmower Man, then you have a pretty good idea
about the implications of anything with a name like the Virtual Environment
At the IMTI, the Centre allows extremely complicated objects — from
a sports arena to a light armoured vehicle — to be created and manipulated
within a computer-generated virtual environment.
“For the first time in the world, we were able to realize the performance
and assembly without making a hard piece,” Salloum says of the VET Centre’s
work with General Dynamics on the creation of the American Stryker LAV, a military
transportation construction. According to Salloum, the awarding of the $6-billion
contract for 2,800 vehicles to London’s own GD is attributable to the
unique capabilities of the Centre.
“We were able to stack people in it; to stack munitions, to try all
kinds of functional performance evaluations. We modified the design in the
virtual world several times with the company personnel and the client [in this
case the U.S. military].”
The technology was also used to construct and test the design for the John
Labatt Centre, allowing interested parties to examine the facilities and suggest
changes before a single brick was laid.
Ed note: Stay tuned for Campus Life’s issue on Apr. 8, when we assess
the value of this type of research on a university campus.