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IT’S A COMMON PREDICATMENTfor drivers: You’re traveling down a highway, looking for an exit and—wouldn’t you know it—a tractor-trailer moves over into the lane beside you, blocking the view.

No road angst is necessary, however, if the rolling stock belongs to the Physics Shipping Company, thanks to its “transparent” tractor-trailer.

There, on the back of the truck, is a real-time video image of the view in front of the tractor: traffic, landscape, road signs, just as it would look if it weren’t for the vehicle.

Nifty idea, right?

It’s more than that. A prototype of this “transparent” truck was created in the optics lab housed in the basement of Albright’s Science Center. You may chuckle at the whimsical arrangement of cardboard boxes mimicking the shape of a truck, with “Physics Shipping Company” scrawled on the side in black marker and lenses and lens holders in place of tires, but make no mistake: It works. A video camera and lenses arrayed on the front of the “truck” capture the scene in front and display it clearly, and at proper magnification, on a monitor behind it.

The innovative solution is a credit to the diligence and problem-solving skills of the five physics students in the “Advanced Optics Laboratory” course this past fall, who jumped on the suggestion offered by Brian Buerke, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of physics, for the second of two projects in the course.

The idea for the transparent truck, Buerke says, grew out of his reading about a building in Asia that was designed to be transparent. It got him to thinking about more practical applications of transparency.

“I’m driving around thinking I’d really like to see what’s on the other side of this truck, and I said, ‘That’s it! Why don’t we apply this idea to making trucks transparent and make it useful?'” Buerke says.


A rough road

Buerke described his students as “invigorated” by the prospect of working on a project that had practical application.

But the road to success proved to be stop-and-go for a while.

“The more we dove into it, the more we realized the measures that had to be taken to give us what we wanted,” says Matthew Hnatiuk ’14.

To complicate things, and to enhance learning, the professor required them to build their own lens system, not just use what was installed on the camera.

The students delved deep into the research to solve this and other problems, such as finding free software that would give them a full-size picture instead of a relatively tiny one.

Kaitlyn Chappell ’15 volunteered to learn the Zemax software, an industry standard for designing and analyzing imaging systems. She passed that knowledge to another student, who then taught the next one, “so by the end we all pretty much knew how to use it,” she says.

Problems kept cropping up, of course. Frustrated by Zemax, the team opted for a more trial-and-error approach.

Sadly, “it was working worse,” says Hnatiuk.

They went back to Zemax, back to more research, and back to more problem solving. After a few weeks, the students had a clear picture, but sizing the image to scale continued to be problematic. A picture taken of Hnatiuk that showed his head in the background rising above the monitor should have shown his body in proportion. Buerke quipped that while Hnatiuk, who plays strong safety for the

Lions football team, “may want to look that way on the football field,” the body showed up far too large.

But the students persisted, building the system on a specialized rail in the optics lab. On a given day one student might be calling out Zemax data, others fussing with the choice and placement of lenses, another working on creating a rangefinder, and another holding a poster at various distances in front of the camera.

Rebekah Neulinger ’15, who had done data and error analysis at the beginning, captured the experience of the team.

“I do a little bit of everything,” she says, as she held a poster in front of the camera to help work on the scale problem.

Low tech came into play, as well, with rulers, thumbs and fingers used to compare sizes.

End of the long haul

Then came success.

“The aha! moment was when we got all the scaling and everything right,” says Matthew Redell ’14.

A week before finals, the project was ready. The new picture of Hnatiuk standing at the end of the room showed the proportions were right.

“I’ve been impressed with their creativity,” Buerke says. “They accomplished everything I asked them to do. They even got to the point where they could change magnification while keeping it in focus.”

Beyond the course requirements, one of the students developed a rangefinder, essential to determining magnification so the image

appears at the right size.

Furthermore, Buerke says, Dylan Horst ’14 and Redell applied for and received an Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE) grant, to be used during Interim to find the best system—projection or screen— for the display on the rear of the truck or trailer.

The students all voiced satisfaction about working on a project that has real-world application.

“Commercial viability is a nice bonus,” Chappell says. “But I really like solving a problem, and it’s very frustrating driving behind large trucks.”

Hnatiuk, who took the lead in developing the rangefinder, agrees. “We learned more than we thought we would,” he says.



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