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
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? "
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)!
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:
Media Technology Research Centre
University of Bath