Picture the young explorer, standing in his StarCAVE, searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan. Picture the world around him, the wilderness stretching away in all directions. Picture him stooping to inspect some rocks near his feet, rocks that together form a suspiciously tidy rectangle, a rectangle that stands out for its orderliness amid the surrounding chaos of green lichen and gray talus. Picture him making a note to himself, then turning toward a faraway peak topped by an ancient shrine and launching himself toward it at several hundred miles an hour.
It’s an illusion, of course. The StarCAVE, this five-walled Cave Automated Virtual Environment, is a trickster, a dream-bringer. It squats in an earthquake-proof room in a laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, and allows its users to immerse themselves in huge three-dimensional projections of computer-generated molecules or architectural CAD blueprints or, as now, high-resolution satellite imagery of northern Mongolia. The explorer squats to examine pixels, not rocks, and when he flies away, he’s standing still. None of this is real.
Except for the explorer.
He’s as real as it gets.
Albert Lin, 28, received his doctorate from the materials science and engineering program at UCSD early last year. He’s a good scientist, one who’s earned kudos for his work probing the strengths and weaknesses of crustraceans and mollusks. Upon his graduation, his mother, a former Hong Kong movie star, and his father, an astrophysicist, both urged him to get on with things as soon as possible, to find a job that would allow him to eat more steak, less ramen. Instead, Lin decided to begin his postgraduate career by organizing a high-risk, high-stakes project, one that offered little stability and even less promise of success.