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The Design of Virtual Environments with particular reference to VRML

Design into production

Future roles of VRML in Higher Education

The possible applications to higher education can be divided into three areas: as a medium to enhance teaching and research within the HE sector, as a new subject of study, and as a collaborative space. We concentrate, however, on the latter two as they are less often discussed in the context of HE, where we believe they will prove important.

1 As a medium for education & research

The Internet generally is being proposed as a means to facilitate both teaching and research in the tertiary sector. Indeed this is the most obvious role for VRML. Three-D content can be created and distributed to one's own students, or made more widely available to learners across the globe- it functions as a medium.

In its simple, extant version 1, VRML is essentially a means of graphic presentation. Therefore, any textbook or course materials that have 3-D graphics, such as architecture, chemistry and engineering, may benefit from VRML. For example, the publishing of chemical models can be assisted as suggested by Casher & Rzepa (1996). If the course materials, or the research papers, require multiple drawing of a 3D object or space, then clearly VRML will give benefits.

More abstract representation - that is, data visualisation - is also increasingly supported. VRML modules are available in visualisation systems such as Data Explorer from IBM, and IRIS Explorer for NAG. Data visualisation can be easily supported in that the objects can use the WWWAnchor node to point to textual, tabular material describing the data in other forms. This ability will extend the range of subjects that can benefit from VRML to include those that deal not with spatial objects, but call upon quantitative or qualitative data that can be spatially represented, such as the social sciences.

Rather than list them again here, we direct the reader to the VRML Repository list of example applications.

2 As a new subject

New technologies, such as multi-media and computer graphics have provided the basis for new professions and courses. Equally, it is likely that a fully functioning VRML technology will provide opportunities for courses in the design and implementation of virtual spaces, be they for social use or data visualisation purposes. There will be a requirement for specifically trained designers who understand the issues associated with virtual spaces.

It is interesting to consider what elements will be required for such a course. There is, naturally, a requirement for an understanding of the underlying technologies: 3D modelling, the Internet and their associated tools. But there is also a need for specific design skills. It is to discussion of this broader kind of understanding that this report has been largely given over.

Many of the skills of thinking in terms of space, and human relationships to space, are to be found in architecture, and there is some evidence that many architects in the Unites States in particular are moving into the design of virtual spaces (Phillips Mahoney 1995). In another example, the effective use of coloured lights on coloured surfaces within worlds is one that comes less from traditional graphic design and more from theatre set design or interior design. To understand collaborative, multi-user spaces suggest that some psychological and sociological content will also be needed.

The employment market for the graduates of such courses is manifold. There is a games market developing which also requires trained 3D world designers. For example, Damage ( html) allows players to become part of the cast in a developing game environment. Based on a client/server Internet model, players from all over the world play together either in opposition or cooperatively. With programmable behaviours, and a heavily modifiable character toolkit, players can change or barter their attributes to let them cope with the different scenarios that the game throws up. They intend to be compatible with the VRML-2 standard.

Another such game is Westworld 2000, by Byron Preiss Multimedia ( - a multimedia CD-ROM game with on-line multi-user play. The game lets the user explore the three-dimensional virtual theme parks, while interacting with other players and three-dimensional humanoid robots. The characters and environment respond dynamically to the player's actions.

In addition, it is likely that many organisation will create permanent, shared, online worlds to support, for example, customer enquiries, or collaborative working. These too will require specialist designers. Recently Cybergate saw its first political meeting, where a space was created to allow a US Congressional candidate to meet' the public, indicating range of applications that are being tried.

3 As a collaborative medium

As already described above, one of the longer-term, but possibly most exciting, opportunities lies in the educational use of the shared spaces for distance teaching and project collaboration. The communicative worlds similar to those described above, would allow for students and staff to engage in distributed meetings, seminars and tutorials. A student at the Centre for Electronic Arts is currently experimenting with a CyberGate-compliant space that is used for tutorials (

A number of trials using the existing technologies are being tried. For example, the Virtual Online University is experimenting with Chaco's Pueblo browser which includes VRML, as an interface for distributed learning (

Another experiment which did not use VRML, but gives an idea of where a future VRML standard is heading, is the CyberCampus. This system was demonstrated by NTT and employs Sense8 virtual reality tools (, which provides a multi-user space. The College of Marin created an educational program in which students along with a teacher 'walked' around a model of an actual geological location, which had pointers to teaching materials.

Increasingly the Universities seek to adapt, supporting 'learning-for-life', in addition to more conventional students. Such technologies may mitigate some of the problems of isolation that distance learning brings. The students not only access course materials, but can also meet in social spaces to discuss them with staff and fellow students.

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