Virtual research environments transform the way in which academics across a range of disciplines work. Philip Pothen explains how VREs enable researchers, often in remote locations, to share data as never before
Imagine a dance performance in which a viewer controls a virtual environment using a 3-D animator while a dancer performs at another remote location. The dancer will feel as though he or she is performing in the real environment, while the audience sees the dancer in the virtual environment. This is the level of integration of the real and the virtual being explored by one of the projects in a new Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc) programme.
Such "presence" - or "telepresence", as Andrew Hugill of De Montfort University, a project partner, calls it - offers possibilities in the performing arts and beyond. Professor Hugill leads the Centre for Creative Technologies at De Montfort whose involvement in the Stereoscopic Access Grid Environment (Sage) project stems from an interest in exploring performances in remote and virtual environments.
"The idea is that you can interact with a virtual body in another environment using stereoscopy - or 3-D vision - and use these networks for real-time performances in a variety of physical spaces," he explains.
At the hub of a network of research laboratories at Manchester, De Montfort, Southampton and Salford universities, the Sage project is pioneering the creation of portable virtual environment centres that can be made available to a range of subject areas and research departments. "In the dance sphere," Hugill says, "we can use them to make such novel interactions possible. The potential in dance and music, and also in other subject areas, is immense."
Hugill hopes the next step will be an "internet orchestra", a network of four types of musician performing in different locations - vocalists and instrumentalists (both physical and virtual), "laptronicists" (performers making electronic music using laptops), and "MOOsicians" - using a Multi-user domain (Object-Orientated) to orchestrate the whole.
While this last idea remains untested, such interactions are made possible by the Access Grid, an advanced videoconferencing facility that links people across multiple locations. It also offers data-sharing tools, typically requiring multiple audio and video streams that traditional systems cannot provide but that are required by increasingly complex and collaborative virtual research environments, or VREs. Such collaborative environments are at the heart of Jisc's £3.2 million VRE programme, of which Sage is just one part.
Programme manager Maia Dimitrova says such VREs are increasingly necessary.
"Advanced technologies are changing the way research is undertaken.
Researchers need specialist tools to share data across disciplines, institutions and national boundaries."
Other projects in the programme include the development of a pilot VRE at Reading University to help archaeologists collect information from sites, co-ordinate expertise, and manage the resulting data. Archaeologists have been using handheld devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) in the field to upload data to the VRE to improve real-time data gathering at Silchester Roman Town, one of the UK's largest Roman sites.
Another project is the Collaborative Orthopaedic Research Environment (Core) project at Southampton University, which is developing a VRE to aid surgeons in conducting clinical trials. Orthopaedic surgical trials typically run for periods of up to two years, with postoperative assessment results collected regularly. Results are analysed by a team of surgeons before being disseminated to the wider orthopaedic community.
Yee-Wai Sim, research fellow at the Core project, says this process is vital to the profession's ongoing training and development. "Surgeons fill in an electronic log-book of their operations," he explains. "This builds into an 'e-portfolio' with full details of clinical data, which is uploaded to the VRE to be shared with others." The VRE also provides a facility for surgeons to conduct "e-experiments".
"Surgeons create an experimental workspace in the VRE," Sim explains. "They have to specify experimental procedures and the VRE uses this information to generate data entry forms for surgeons to enter specifics of the experiment. To analyse the data, they can choose from statistical methods offered by the VRE, the results appearing in the user workspace.
Jisc's Dimitrova is excited about the possibilities of VREs across all subjects, claiming that they represent "a new paradigm for the conduct of research". While projects are beginning to show not only that their multidisciplinary possibilities are rich and varied, she says, "They're beginning to allow researchers to work on a range of challenging problems that have not been possible up to now."
Philip Pothen is the Jisc Communications Manager.
Silchester Roman Town: http:///www.silchester.reading.ac.uk/vre/