It's going to be Massive

June 13, 1997

The virtual student, remote but an integrated part of a learning community, is the goal of research in Nottingham and Sweden. Mike Holderness reports.

The scene: the office of the Head of the Department of Modern Studies, University of South Mimms. The date: March, 2012. Enter Susan, a graduate student. With feigned diffidence: "You know about the Santa Cruz conference in August . . .?" "Yes, of course, you're going to have to take part." Susan brightens, she hopes imperceptibly. "After your presentation in Fylde, I'm sure the department should meet all the costs . . ." The dingy room becomes radiant. ". . . of a virtual reality link." The temperature falls 20 degrees, as Susan inwardly curses geeks and nerds.

August: Susan is in a Nissen hut on the South Mimms "campus", wearing headphones in front of a computer monitor the size of a small wardrobe. On the screen are 40 blockish cartoon figures, bearing name badges which in real life would be half a metre wide. She overhears: "I'm working on Deleuzian rhizomatic aspects of the 1990s Reclaim the Streets movement, using declassified Forward Intelligence Team data . . ." Looking intently over her own shoulder - no, since we imagine ourselves looking over the physical Susan's shoulder, make that "over her avatar's shoulder" - she sidles up beside the speaker to eavesdrop further. The speaker is in Watford. It's kind of fun. There's even a Virtual Outdoors with a view of the sunset and a virtual pier. But the air is still grey and damp. There is no sun on her face, no sand between her toes You will not be surprised to hear that this scenario is under construction. The Massive project at Nottingham University aims to build and evaluate a virtual conference world, with emphasis on discovering the minimum representation needed for effective interaction. Dive, from the Swedish Institute of Computer Science in Stockholm, has a greater emphasis on visual realism and the development of virtual tools for manipulating the virtual world.

The potential benefits of remote education have been extolled to death. But why bother with the complexities of virtual reality?

Steve Benford, head of the Nottingham team, replies: "People do have valuable learning experiences in larger groups than the four or five which text-based conferencing supports. And current technology just doesn't support people getting together for a natter over coffee."

Steve Benford stresses that Massive has been funded as research, not on a cost-benefit basis. But a college administrator elsewhere countered: "For some, the vision of virtual reality is of moving our ever-growing number of students out of our decaying Victorian buildings into their own decaying Victorian bedsits."

The technology is enough in its infancy, though, that a conference on collaborative virtual environments in higher education, in Nottingham on May 30, included a presentation on problems of evaluating experimental environments and much on the nuts and bolts of transmitting cartoon images of participants over networks, but little on educational applications. As Steve Benford puts it: "We're building the tools which virtual architects will use."

Brian Shackel, retired from the HUSAT Research Institute, Loughborough University was reminded "of the early days of electronic journals, when in the first flush of naivety we thought that the revolution would come within four years, but an evolution over 15 years has only just brought us close to the possibility."

Massive looks crude now. There are, however, early indications that in a visually-sketchy environment with realistic movement and interactions, users may find it easier to become "immersed". In Massive II, being coded by Chris Greenhalgh, users will get stereo sound with the "cocktail-party effect", whereby they can focus on one speaker in a virtual crowd. Massive I and II also allow users to choose to be brash, or to blend into the virtual furniture.

How will users in general take to them? A proportion of over-30s, in this author's teaching experience, will not be fluent with computers until they retire and have time to play. But Steve Benford suggests that, to provide for future postgraduates now entering secondary school, "We will probably have to produce interfaces which look like gaming machines."

Commercially-produced virtual environments such as WorldsChat and Quake have none of this theoretical sophistication: they tend towards detailed flat images, with an interface little different from text-only chat environments. Those which are designed to work over a normal phone line find it difficult to support sound: communication is more efficient through typed text appearing in "speech bubbles" over avatars' heads.

Neither Massive nor Dive will work over a normal phone line: but they will work over ISDN, an expensive option in the UK.

Part of the technological appeal of virtual environments over videoconferencing, notes Ron Rogerson in a personal capacity and not as secretary of the JISC Advisory Committee on Networking, is that it "substitutes local modelling for network transfer (and) makes use of the (possibly temporary) current situation where we have more spare local hardware than spare network bandwidth." Widespread use of videoconferencing by postgraduates alone would rapidly bring SuperJanet to its knees - and many universities' local area networks are already overloaded.

But when will you need to worry about this technology? Chris Greenhalgh, Ron Rogerson and Brian Shackel are remarkably consistent in their off-the-cuff predictions. Virtual conferencing will within two years be the normal mode of communication for postgraduates working in this area; and for postgraduates in general it may be widespread within five to ten years. Beyond ten years, it will be applied to undergraduate teaching, starting with split-campus scenarios. Chris Greenhalgh, who should know, raises an interesting non-technological question about this: "Personal attendance won't be replaced in the medium term (10-20+ years) for 'normal' undergraduate courses. How long before some smart undergraduate codes a personal simulation that just shuffles about and mutters randomly? Could we tell the difference?"

Get more information on Massive from http://www.crg.cs.nott. ac.uk/cmg.massive.html

There is an introduction to Dive at http://www.sics.se/dce/dive/ The Birkbeck Principles of Protein Structure course is at http://www.cryst.bbk.ac.uk/ PPS/index.html

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