Helena Flusfeder takes a tour of Israel's first 3-D virtual museum. Stylised triangular trees stand in front of the museum on the computer screen. It is the prototype of Israel's first three-dimensional "virtual museum", designed by researchers at Tel Aviv University's Knowledge Technology Lab. The laboratory, which is part of the university's science and technology education centre, specialises in educational computing.
Unlike many so-called virtual museums which exist on the Internet, this museum is a three-dimensional space with three-dimensional objects which the user can click on, play around with, "walk" around and view from any angle.
Researchers here have been working on various projects related to computers and education over the last 15 years. For the past year they have been building the prototype of the museum, with its first wing.
According to Avigail Oren, a member of the team of eight, "the concept of the virtual museum is not a new one. It's on the Net. All of the museums are on the Net: the Israel Museum, the Science Museum, the Haifa Museum - but they function more as databases."
She compared them to multi-media catalogues, and explained that the old-style virtual museums represent real museums, but are neither three-dimensional nor highly interactive. The museum developed by the Tel Aviv team is more realistic, even though it exists only as an electronic entity.
The team of science and technology teachers, educationists, technologists, programmers and designers felt that the previous concept of a virtual museum was not real enough. They wanted to create a virtual museum you can "walk around", as opposed to just jumping from page to page. The idea for this project, according to David Mioduser, head of the Knowledge Technology Laboratory was "to create a site which has its own existence . . . on the Net".
The researchers stressed that the museum is designed so that users feel they are inside the place. "It's 3-dimensional. This is an environment, not a bunch of pages."
Their idea was to build an educational wing in the museum dealing with scientific, technological and cultural subjects. Historical issues and conflicts of ideas would be treated from those three points of view. The prototype is "intended for children, not especially for schools. The idea is that they will be able to access it whenever and from wherever they want," Dr Oren said .
The museum entrance leads into the main lobby, which will eventually have displays of general information and lists of events. Past the red mailbox is Galileo's room, complete with table, book, globe and telescope. There are eight exhibition rooms in this wing, with an exhibit in each. The objects on display include a telescope, a pendulum, a Galilean model of the inclined plane, geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe, and an astrolabe - an instrument used to measure angles in the sky. In this wing, the researchers have tried to highlight the conflict between science and religion in which the 16th century Italian astronomer and physicist became embroiled. Viewers can use the museum's information centre as a catalogue and then return to the museum space.
Moving through to the other side of the museum, visitors find an educational playground where each item is designed to explain a particular scientific principle: playground swings to learn about the pendulum and slides to learn about the inclined plane.
"As you approach the swing, everything changes according to your relative position," Dr Mioduser said. "There is one mathematical definition of an object. Each time I move the object, I get an appropriate picture." As the user's viewpoint changes, so does the apparent shape and shading of all the objects in view.
Dr Oren explained that the picture that appears on the screen has not been designed in advance but is constructed while you watch from a mathematical description of the scene. Just like a real museum, the virtual museum tour ends in a "virtual shop" where the user can download pictures and puzzles to keep.
Funding of $150,000 for the project was provided by the university and the Ministry of Education. Computer hardware and software companies gave technical support.
The museum's information centre is on the World Wide Web at htt[://muse.tau.ac.il/museum/kc-muse.html. But Internet users with ordinary PCs will not see anything three-dimensional just yet. The 3D prototype, created mainly for the researchers themselves and potential backers, is at an unpublicised URL and can only be viewed with special software running on a Silicon Graphics workstation.
Dr Mioduser explained that the team had to solve many conceptual and design problems and "didn't want to be bothered by technological constraints."
So rather than using VRML, the industry standard for 3-D graphics on the Web, they developed the application with Open Inventor, a software package from Silicon Graphics which runs only on the company's own machines.
VRML was derived from Open Inventor but lacks some of its more powerful features. Its advantage is that there is a wide choice of VRML viewing programs, freely available on the Internet, for many kinds of computer including Apple Macintosh and Windows PCs.
Work has just begun on a "PC" version of the 3D environment which will include two new museum wings and could be on the Web by the end of 1996.