One of Superman's interesting minor powers is the ability to stand in mid-air. Instead of just flying by, like a bird, he can hover effortlessly and observe whatever he wishes in a way a bird would have a hard time doing for very long.
On a recent day at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I had a Superman moment when given the chance to stand in the air high over the city of Chicago. Of course, it wasn't the real Chicago - just a detailed and accurate virtual creation - and there was a floor beneath me, even though I saw nothing but roofs when I looked down. But I definitely understand now why Superman likes the pose. You can learn and see a lot up here.
My experience was created in the university's CAVE environment. That's short for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, a walk-in theater where students can experience a variety of moving and static 3-D environments by putting on sophisticated 3-D goggles. The $500,000 room, paid for by a NASA grant, is located in the National Space Science and Technology Center on Sparkman Drive, and the images are created by projectors beaming pictures onto each of the cave's walls in a way that simulates three dimensions.
Three-dimensional environments are familiar training tools for the military, but they have civilian uses, too, and scientists come up with more each year. "We use this capability to do research," explained Gregory Reed, a UAH graduate student. "It shows us data we wouldn't otherwise be able to see."