World premiere for Virtual Laser Lab “femtoPro”
Lasers are everywhere. Scientists in Würzburg have now developed the “femtoPro” virtual reality laser lab, which simulates optical configurations in real time and provides eye-safe training in handling short-pulse lasers.
In everyday life we know lasers from many applications such as laser printer or supermarket scanner. Industrially, lasers are used in the processing of materials for cutting, drilling and labeling, and in medicine for diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Laser spectroscopy methods are also indispensable in scientific research.
Theoretical teaching in optics is implemented in schools, universities and industrial sites. However, it is difficult to teach and learn the setup and proper management of optical experiments. Due to the high costs, equipment and teaching staff are generally limited. Additionally, laser radiation is dangerous, so strict eye safety protocols must be followed.
New pedagogical approach in virtual reality
Today, scientists from the Julius-Maximilians University (JMU) in Würzburg have developed the new “femtoPro” virtual reality (VR) laser lab. In femtoPro, users wear VR glasses and manipulate optical elements on a VR laser table. In this way, the coarse and fine positioning of mirrors, lenses, iris apertures or other devices can be changed intuitively and with the same attention to detail as in the real lab. The properties and effects of these elements on the laser beam are calculated and displayed in real time according to physical laws.
“Flight simulators have become indispensable for the realistic practical training of pilots. We have now applied this concept to short-pulse lasers for the first time in the world, ”explains Professor Tobias Brixner, one of the developers of femtoPro and head of the Chair of Physical Chemistry I at JMU, whose research focuses on on ultrashort laser pulses.
Low costs despite high complexity
The difficulty with the VR approach is that, contrary to popular belief, laser beams are not only “line shaped”, but have a “Gaussian” cross section whose diameter can become larger and smaller. as they spread. In addition, the interaction with matter is very complex and includes widely known phenomena such as the refraction of light on a glass, as well as nonlinear optics leading to frequency conversion (i.e. color change). Therefore, an accurate simulation usually takes a long time.
“In order to achieve an interactive learning lab for such optical VR systems, we had to speed up the computations needed to run in real time on a commercially available consumer VR platform,” explains the cooperation partner, Professor Sebastian von Mammen, head of the Games Engineering Group at the Computer Chair for Human-Machine Interaction at JMU. As a result, the acquisition costs of the virtual laboratory amount to only a few hundred euros, whereas a true short-pulse laser laboratory would require an investment of several hundred thousand euros.
Product launch at the “Highlights der Physik” event
After two years of development work, the first version of femtoPro will now be presented to the public for the first time at the “Highlights der Physik” event in Würzburg. As part of a large hands-on market exhibition from September 28 to October 2, 2021, interested parties can put on VR glasses themselves at booth B2 (“May the Force be with you! – Lightsaber and laser pulses” ) and experiment with lasers in the virtual lab.
Reward through financial support
Viable digitization in education and training is an important contemporary issue, as the restrictions of Covid-19 in schools and universities have shown particularly clearly. The Fonds der Chemischen Industrie eV (FCI) has announced that it will thus provide financial support for the femtoPro project. FCI Managing Director Gerd Romanowski says of the transformation resulting from digitization: “In view of these profound changes, our support for new content and teaching methods aims to broaden the skills and qualifications of young people. .
In the future, femtoPro will not only be used for teaching in Würzburg, but will also be available for other universities or schools.