VR field trips come step closer

June 13, 1997

Edinburgh University has added to its multi-site campus with a virtual environment centre which could lead to students going on virtual reality field trips and carrying out virtual reality surgery.

Virtual reality is usually associated with head-mounted displays or large-screen projections, allowing participants to "enter'' a virtual environment, but these immersive systems are costly. The Edinburgh centre, EdVEC, is investigating how to use emerging desktop technology using PCs already in use.

Edinburgh's computing services have won a three-year grant totalling Pounds 5,000 from the Joint Information Systems Committee to develop a software toolkit for the creation of virtual environments that can be used for research and undergraduate and postgraduate teaching.

There is already a range of commercially available software to create virtual environments, but Roy Middleton, EdVEC's manager, says these require an expert programmer, making them economically unfeasible for a higher education institution.

"If you're trying to make this sort of technology available to educators, researchers and students, they need the tools to do it themselves."

While the environment will not be an immersive one, the Edinburgh team wants to make it as realistic as possible, and is investigating cheap ways of producing stereo vision to create a 3D image, for example by using a superior version of the throwaway green and red spectacles sometimes produced by magazines.

"We have to give students the feeling that it's real enough to be worthwhile,'' Mr Middleton says. "Computer games are just so synthetic. We're trying to create a reality that looks realistic.'' The toolkit will enable virtual environments to be created from real world data, such as photographs and film. It will be used in four pilot studies in geosciences, meteorology, veterinary sciences, and developmental anatomy. These include virtual anatomy laboratories for veterinary students, which will supplement or perhaps replace the dissection of specimens. They will also be able to be used to simulate surgical procedures.

The geosciences project will develop a number of virtual field excursions, based on sites which are well known, but sometimes overcrowded with field trips. It will use the first virtual reality tool developed under the project, SMUDGE, Stereo Morphing Using Differential Geometric Epipoles, which provides a fast, smooth transition or walk-through motion from one virtual environment or panorama to another.

Students will navigate the site with key areas highlighted, and Mr Middleton said they would not only be able to see simulations of rock samples, but also simulations of subsurface strata. A virtual demonstrator will provide a sound commentary.

Mr Middleton said particular field trips and laboratory sessions took place only once but the new technology would allow students to prepare better before the event, and revisit it for revision.

"Moreover, it will provide the opportunity for those unable to attend on the day and for the disabled to participate on an equal basis,'' he said.

EdVEC will not only support teaching and research in higher education, but also aims to work with industry to develop commercial projects that can be used in the home and at work.

Further details can be found at http://www. vldtk.ed.ac.uk

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