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Report on "VR in Society, Engineering and Science"

19-20 July 1995
Royal Society Meeting
6 Carlton House Terrace
London SW1, UK


Prof P Cochrane, Dr A W Rudge, Prof R J Stone and Mr S Whalley


220 people attended this International Discussion Meeting in London. Virtual Reality is developing from its early experimental forms into a technology whose strengths are being exploited across established scientific and engineering domains. The freedom to interact, the ability to visualize abstract data and the sharing with others are the chief attributes of VR. This event demonstrated how these characteristics have been used in diverse fields, including medicine, human issues, engineering and telecommunications. Proceedings of the event will be published by Chapman and Hall in 1996.


The Opening Session was given by Prof Nick Negroponte, Director of the MIT Media Laboratory, USA, who traced the origins of virtual reality to the early work on head mounted displays by Ivan Sutherland in 1963 and the General Electric moon-landing simulator.

The visual side of VR is what has caught the public attention to date. However, of equal if not greater importance are:

Motor/memory reinforcement

Virtual environments are spaces in which humans perform actions and interact with virtual objects. Training procedures can be practiced and skills learned - whether in training for laparascopic surgery or emergency procedures for nuclear power stations. The motor memory reinforcement that is supported in the virtual world makes it a rich environment for skills acquisition and retention. Flight simulators have been demonstrating this fact for years. Thus Virtual Reality is less to do with pictures and realistic image generation and more to do with body involvement.

Response time of the image

Due to the limits of current technology, complex images tend to lag as the viewer moves to a new position in the virtual world. However, it is better to reduce complexity in the image and have no lag. A response time of microseconds is required rather than the often demonstrated milliseconds. Experiments have been done which demonstrate that simple pictures with high resolution elements pasted in as spots of realism are just as effective as high resolution images. The small areas of realism give an overall richer environment.


Sound is the dark horse in virtual reality. If we introduce a new quantity - 'an emote' - as a measure of the emotion that is conveyed, then there are more emotes per bit of sound than per bit of pictures. Current effort is being directed towards realistic pictures, but more effort should be put into sound. Sound is regarded as an after-thought, as many computer conferencing systems demonstrate. Sound is rich and spatial.

Response time is more important than graphics or sound.

Further sensory parameters are touch, smell and taste. Touch has to provide texture and force-feedback. Smell and taste may be easy to generate but are more difficult to remove.

Session I: Virtual Reality in Medicine

Virtual Environment Knee Arthroscopy System (VE-KATS)
Dr Avis (University of Hull, UK) described how virtual environments were used to extend existing training systems for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) and allow trainee orthopedic surgeons to acquire and practice the skills required. In this way, core skills of surgeons can be developed and certified away from the surgical environment.

Tele-endoscopy: the Application of Telecommunications to Medical Endoscopy
Dr Bell (Ipswich District Hospital, UK) and Mr Heatley (BT, UK) described how high quality medical images could now be conveyed to remote sites via public ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). This allows collaborative diagnosis, or diagnosis by remote specialists and experts. Telemedicine has been in use for some years but most has been point to point broadband links for high resolution images such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans. This project has demonstrated that narrow band, low cost networks can be utilized without loss of the required picture quality for effective diagnosis and interaction.

The Virtual Reality of Artificial Heart Valve Design
Dr Trowbridge (University of Sheffield, UK) described how simulations had been performed to compare the behaviours of mechanical and tissue heart valves using models in virtual environments.

Session II - Human Issues of Virtual Reality

Support for Perception and Action in Virtual Environments
Dr Rushton (University of Edinburgh, UK) outlined the contribution of perception research to the study of heading direction in natural and virtual environments.

Communicating Emotions using Virtual Reality
Claire Wood and Ian Gwalter (ActingUp, UK) described Project Discover which brought together a group of people of different abilities and to reduce feelings of isolation. The reasons for using VR are that it not only provides an accessible environment for the physically as well as the sensorally impaired, but it is also a medium for creating a narrative and for role play scenarios which are appropriate for the portrayal of individual and group experiences.

Human Interaction in Augmented Reality
Dr Cavazza (Thomson CSF, France) summarised two experiments for exploring human factors in virtual environments.The first, in telerobotics, used a head mounted display to control the movements of a remote video camera on a robot, enabling the user in the virtual world to see the world of the robot. The second is a feasibility prototype for a virtual documentation system. Speech is the most appropriate channel for exchanging complex information, since this leaves the operator's hands free for tasks in the virtual space, eg surgery, engineering repair and maintenance etc. For speech recognition to be usable and successful it has to have a very high success rate.

Human Time Adaptability in VR
Mr Guckenberger (ECC International Corp, USA) described how virtual time could be used to enhance the effect of training procedures in virtual environments. Increasing the virtual time to 1.5 times the normal time resulted in higher subsequent performances and effectiveness of the trainees. However, this was felt to be the limit - benefits did not increase by increasing the virtual time above 1.5 times normal time.

Session III - Virtual Reality in Engineering

Virtual Worlds and the AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) Industries

Dr Jacobson (Worldesign Inc, USA) outlined how virtual worlds were assisting with design reviews, overcoming misunderstandings at an early stage, alteration of orders, and litigation. By the end of 1995, two significant developments were expected to have an impact on the design world. Firstly, high power PCs with graphics accelerator cards will make systems that were formerly considered high-end to be affordable by the typical design office (currently out of 200 architects, only 3 use a computer!). Secondly, new software in the CAD area will provide much better support for models in virtual environments at low cost. In addition, the World-Wide Web will be utilized (via tools such as VRML) to allow users to construct and share 3D objects and design with clients who can then place an order. By 1997, specification, ordering, and construction will be centred on the information space.

Virtual Reality Applications in Science and Engineering
Dr Sherman and Dr Craig (NCSA, USA) reported on an examination of how successful and useful current VR applications are in the areas of virtual prototyping, astrophysics, meteorology, medical visualization, and animation production. The applications used the CAVE which was developed at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. This was found to be easier to use than conventional head mounted systems because of the large space in which one walks and the light displays (sunglasses). The conclusion was that VR was very useful, particularly in virtual prototyping. The expense of building real physical protoytpes to see how they performed and what modifications were needed - was avoided, since all these tests could be performed in the virtual environment.

A Virtual Environment for portraying and interacting with the Space Environment of the Solar System
Dr Stytz (Air Force Institute of Technology, USA) described how virtual environments were used to model the solar system using standard astronomical data and facilitate interaction and display of planets.

Virtual Offices
Dr Robinson (University of Cambridge, UK) described how to augment the traditional desk and office using digital technology. Video cameras are used to read documents on the user's desk and provide assistance with their manipulation. Video projectors allow the system to project electronic data onto the work surface and onto paper documents. This work is being extended to do automatic translation, manipulate video clips, and provide collaborative work desks.

Session IV - Virtual Reality in Telecommunications

A Multi-perspective distributed Virtual Environment for Concurrent Engineering
Dr Fernando (University of Leeds, UK) described a distributed environment containing product data in a standard format based on the ISO standard STEP. It supports a user configurable virtual environment and has been designed to allow the integration of different CAE applications.

Collaboration takes place over high speed networks and allows more complex objects to be developed more quickly by multi-disciplinary teams.

Televirtuality - a shift of Paradigm in Technology and Social Interaction
Dr Odegard (Telenor Research, Norway) reported on evaluation of the potential use of Virtual Reality in applications areas such as teleconferencing, distance education, and entertainment.

Teamwork in Virtual Environments
Dr Rogers (BT, UK) and Dr Benford (University of Nottingham, UK) outlined how the VIRTUOSI project had utilized Virtual Reality to support groups and group working. Information is contained in a virtual document store and can be accessed by group members. VIRTUOSI thus utilized the concepts of interaction, visualization, and cooperation inherent in virtual environments.

Virtual World Interface to the Superhighway
Mr Powers and Mr Sheat (BT, UK) described an easy-to-use interface to handle home access to virtual worlds and the superhighway. This includes access to financial services, shopping etc. The central thesis is that traditional GUI type interfaces are fine for text and pictures, but not so good for multimedia elements. Representing these in the virtual world allows the user to access them directly, not merely as icons but as real virtual world objects.

Rae Earnshaw