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Visit to the Vancouver Area

Report on an EPSRC sponsored visit

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding supplied me with a travel grant to visit Vancouver, an area rich in IT activity both commercially and within the region's universities. My own interests centre on multimedia, virtual reality and animation topics, roughly 'applied interactive computer graphics', so the individual site visits were planned accordingly.

The urban area around Vancouver is vast, essentially several cities merging together as they grow but interlaced with water and mountains. This makes it the most naturally attractive big city I have ever seen. I spent one week living at the University of British Columbia and in the second week moved close to Simon Frazer University. Site trips to relevant companies were also made.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) is a long-established large campus university. There are two departments of relevance to my interests: Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Prof Gunther Schrack of the latter kindly acted as my point of contact. His interests in computer graphics, especially tree structures and related algorithms, were known to me before the trip, so it was agreeable to meet him for the first time and to be brought up to date. Within UBC Computer Science I met Prof Kelly Booth who introduced me to various graduate students and research assistants. I was able to see their work on Facial Modelling and Animation which is based on hierarchical B-spline modelling. This allows for better modelling than we can achieve with our own system (which uses a patch model for the surface), whereas ours (EPSRC supported) has a more sophisticated three layer approach (skull, muscle, skin) better suited to procedural control.

I also saw an unusual project to create a computer model of the Imperial Gardens of Beijing, largely destroyed in the last century by the British and French. Plans remain, together with water colours, and these are the basis of the modelling work, which is a mainly commercial exercise. However it also provided an unexpected link back to Bath: our School of Architecture is developing a similarly ambitious model of the City of Bath.

A further project concerned medical visualization. The example shown was of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid within the human brain. However a particular issue for Canada is that high-technology medical resources, such as scanners, tend to be located in the large population centres, such as Vancouver. Outside of these centres, the population is very thinly spread: you may be literally hundreds of miles away from one. Diagnosis is thus unnecessarily complicated when the patient has to travel such a distance, perhaps staying several days for a series of tests. There is thus much interest in using high-performance networks as an aid to remote diagnostic testing: even the ability to show moving images across the city can speed up the process, as the physician is not likely to be available at the same place and time as the scanner.

For my second week, I moved to Simon Frazer University (SFU). SFU is a 1960s university, built on a hill, not too far from an established university (UBC). This much it shares with my home institution. It is located in Burnaby, strictly just beyond Vancouver but in fact merging seamlessly with it.

I was scheduled to see three people at SFU, all of whom proved to have relevant and interesting work. Prof Tom Calvert is well-known for his work on Life Forms, a system for animating human movement and the composition of dance. This uses a stylised human model but represents movement so well that the resulting animations are very compelling. It is difficult to believe that motion capture has not been used. This relates to our own work on emotional expression through body stance.

Dr F David Fracchia, a new appointment, acted as my initial SFU contact. He demonstrated his work on physically-based models of biological systems. A particular feature is the modelling of moss growth in a rigorous fashion. Most computer graphics people are content to model plants so that they look about right, primarily so they can be used as scenic items. Dr Fracchia is interested in modelling the growth (rather than the final plant) in order to shed new light on the underlying biological processes. Accordingly he works with colleagues in biological sciences who (for example) take microscopic measurements of hundreds of growing samples, in order to derive the plant parameters.

Prof John Dill shares a number of interests with us. There is a particular interest in our Virtual Manufacturing project (EPSRC GR/H 47043) and some related networked robotics work. The interest arises from their work on interactive on-line teaching environments. One problem they wish to address is a virtual laboratory session, so our work meshes quite closely with their needs. Prof Dill and his colleague Doug Girling also have general interests in component modelling. Their project is in fact part of the larger Virtual University work in which they are involved. I saw further work on a Notetaker and on a Circuit Emulator to support this.

Prof Dill also has work on desktop design using an "intelligent zoom" metaphor. The discrete version of this is of relevance to our work on picture browsers and web retrieval. I was very impressed with this idea, which felt just right and was in the "why didn't anybody think of it before? " mould.

It was a secondary aim of the visit to see some of the commercial companies in the area. Rainmaker Imaging Co are a film post-production company, with a strong line in special effects. They have more SGI computing power in one room than I have ever seen before, as might be expected for a company which works with digitised frames of film. There is a particular interest in delivering images via networks, which is what attracted me to the company. They are using a wavelet-based MPEG compression, giving a claimed 200 to 1 reduction for TV quality images while still being real-time. Our common interest is in delivering pictures with a minimal description. The Bath work in animation, in which quite complex synthetic scenes can be described in a compact way, interested them. My contact was Dr Panos Nasiopoulos, who is also an adjunct Professor at UBC.

Ed Froese is the founder and President of Advanced Cultural Technologies Inc. He kindly gave me some of his time to describe his Virtual Museum project. The company is interested in providing a professional quality service by supplying on-line catalogues and images of museum artefacts. Although the company is too new to have major demonstrations in place, there are already tie-ins with Europe and there is a particular wish to establish a high-bandwidth link over that distance. A significant part of their product is concerned with billing for use, a sure sign that they are addressing the professional market in a realistic way.

The visit was a very productive one both in terms of making new contacts and in spreading word of UK based research. It is more than likely that contacts will be maintained at both university sites. Company contacts have also been of mutual interest and we have sent additional information packs to them. Interestingly all of the contacts were helpful and friendly, even those with clearly very busy agendas. Companies are clearly anxious not to miss anything that academics may have to offer and the location means Vancouver is in the same time-zone as the USA west coast high-tech companies, making for a very go-ahead environment. So special thanks to Gunther Scrack for setting up the visit and to EPSRC for a stimulating and worthwhile visit. If you can't get there in person, at least visit on the World Wide Web (WWW)!

WWW addresses:
UBC Department of Electrical Engineering:

UBC Department of Computer Science:

SFU Graphics and Multimedia Research Laboratory:

SFU School of Computing Science:

UOB Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture:

UOB Centre for Media Technology Research:

Philip Willis
Media Technology Research Centre
University of Bath