From a rock to a soft place in QuickTime

January 10, 1997

Images digitally stitched together into wrap-around panoramas make for a dramatic virtual field trip, Susan Nowak discovers.

Imagine being able to walk around the mouth of a live volcano which may explode into action at any moment, or getting in really close to a steaming geyser. It's not a chance that many of us are likely to have due to the expense of making a long distance journeys, and the inherent dangers involved in undertaking such explorations. Virtual Field Trip is a piece of software which allows you to do just that, bringing alive concepts that most students can only read about.

The CD-Rom has been developed in the Media Labs of the academic publishers Addison-Wesley, in the United States, and makes use of two of the latest Apple tools, OpenDoc and QuickTime VR. OpenDoc provides a standardised low-level framework which allows components to exchange data and messages. Its effect is to speed up greatly the development time of an application and allow the emphasis to be on getting meaningful content rather than on working out how to put it together. QuickTime VR is a technique which allows the user to control the exploration of an on-screen environment around the full 360 degrees. It allows the possibility of zooming in or out and clicking on hot spots. When combined with sound that also shifts its perspective as you move around the environment the effect can be truly breathtaking.

Virtual Field Trip has been designed for use by undergraduate students of geology to give them a real feeling of what it is like to visit, initially three, different physical environments; Yellowstone National Park, Mount Kilaueua on Big Island in Hawaii, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Sean Deane, the director of the Media Labs, has aimed to develop a product that gets away from a staid and static experience. Within the environments students will find the tools that geologists use on site, and they will have the virtual opportunity to pick up rock specimens that have been collected during the field trip, and to turn them around and examine them from every angle.

The photographic material for both the Yellowstone National Park trip and the Hawaii trip was gathered using a standard Nikon camera. This was chosen because the resolution of the image is still greatly superior to any digital camera. A special precise rotating tripod is set up at each view point, or node, and a photo is shot every 18 degrees. There are thus 20 pictures for every 360 degree sweep. Back in the studio the sequence of photos is put onto Photo CD and initially stitched together using Photoshop. At this stage each node takes up 10-12 megabytes of disc space. But after being seamlessly sewn together using Apple's QuickTime VR developers kit each node takes only half a megabyte of memory. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is being shown in a different way using a 3D rendered environment, but will also include video material.

The emphasis is very much on hard scientific facts and physical processes, although cultural information is provided where pertinent. The programme makes use of the point and click techniques that most students are familiar with, and relies upon many of the interface features that are found on web browsers such as "forward" and "back" buttons.

From the opening screen the student selects a field trip destination. This leads the student onto an interactive map of the field trip area. Selecting a highlighted point on the map then takes you to a more detailed topographical map, similar in level of detail to an Ordnance Survey map. This is accompanied on-screen by photographs and detailed hypertext information on the area and its physical features.

To see an item in detail a further click takes you to a screen where you can examine the area using QuickTime VR. The QuickTime VR panorama also contains hotspots which allow access to a particular feature, such as an individual geyser, for which there is a QuickTime movie. At all times there is explanatory information available on-screen, which amplifies the visual material, and should you wish to move to more general background material this can be quickly found. One of the other features of the program is that at any time it is possible to see a hierarchical plan of its structure, and move directly to any particular information or place. The program has been designed to be networked if required and runs as easily on a server as it does on a stand alone machine. The idea is that in this way new field trips can be added to the system with minimum difficulty.

Addison-Wesley have developed the first three field trips themselves, but if the concept appears to be successful in the future they will be seeking to make connections with academics in university geology departments in the United Kingdom as well as North America who may like to work on further field trips. The college would be provided with a template for assembling the data, and any successfully documented field trip could then be published as a joint venture. The Apple QuickTime VR developers kit retails for about Pounds 600, on top of this the special tripod costs about Pounds 200, and either a conventional or digital camera is needed.

In academic terms Virtual Field Trip aims to bring places and features alive to students who will probably never have the opportunity to see them in reality, and to support classroom teaching. The content was developed by Steve Hurst a geology professor at the University of Illinois. He undertook the field trips himself and wrote all the accompanying text specifically for the project. The software is designed to be integrated into current teaching programmes. It does not seek to replace the experience of a field trip and associated experimentation, or use of reference books on any particular topic, but rather to complement them. Teachers are provided with supporting texts.

Virtual Field Trip will be on sale from June and will be available for Macs and PCs. It is expected to retail in the US for $20-25 per student licence. Further details: Sean Massey, sales and marketing manager, Interactive Learning Europe, Addison-Wesley Longman, 124 Cambridge Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 4ZS. Tel: 0123 425558. Fax: 01223 425349. Email: smassey@logo.com

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