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Extracts from the Workshop Input Papers - 2

Support and Infrastructure Needs

Bob Hynds gave a perspective on the needs of an institution introducing an area of new technology which has widespread implications.

If new IT developments such as Virtual Reality Environments are to be effectively utilised on campus, then there will need to be co-operation between the developers, the campus computer service providers and academics within departments. The role of the computer service providers must be to provide a bridge between the developers and the academics, to provide the relevant computing infra-structure on campus and to promote the potential and capabilities of virtual reality environments.

To achieve the above roles the service providers need to be informed in good time! To implement any new IT development two things are needed. One is some (often modest) investment, and the other is time. This is needed to explain the new ideas to Centre staff and allow them to become comfortable with the concepts, to develop the facilities and infra-structure to support the development, and to begin to demonstrate on campus the system in action.

There is a considerable amount of information needed by Centres to achieve the role outlined above, and Bob suggested, one of the outcomes of this workshop should be a synopsis sent to Centres which provides this information. At least the information shown below is needed:

  1. Time scales of development
  2. The economics of VR
  3. What campus infra-structure facilities will be needed to implement VR systems i.e.

A further concern for institutions is that of the health and safety of their staff. Huw Jones brought this issue to the attention of the workshop in addressing the concerns which are around concerning the use of VR. Such concerns often relate to entering and leaving virtual environments (e.g. neck stress, hearing loss, nausea). Huw widened the discussion in recognising that the issues can be broadly categorised as physical and mental health problems with short and long term effects. Most concerns which are commonly listed fall into the category of short term physical problems. Issues such as eye strain, exposure to electromagnetic fields fall into the long term potential hazards. Psychological addiction, problems associated with isolation in virtual environments are examples of mental health hazards. If VR is to be taken seriously, then the developments need to be accompanied by research into these health problems so that all possible safeguards can be taken. We need to lobby for such work to be undertaken.


The need for training and awareness in this area was highlighted by Adrian Clark. He noted that there is a great deal of good work in the UK but that we are not exploiting this as well as we could. We need:


The aim of VRML is to "become the standard language for interactive simulation within the WWW". It was conceived in spring 1994, and has developed via discussion on the www-vrml mailing list to a specification of VRML version 1.0 released in third draft in May 1995. It is based on a subset of the Inventor file format. Ken Brodlie noted that the format is currently not about VR as it is commonly understood. However, Ken suggested, that as support for behaviour is added, and multi-user participatory worlds are created, then VRML becomes a serious candidate for distributed VR. Research work will be needed on improving the performance - investigating, for example, more sophisticated approaches to level of details, and recognising different environmental factors, such as network bandwidth and processing power of the client. We need to debate how we can get acceptance and stability of standards and the processes used to achieve this. Is a formal standardisation process required?

Henry Rzepa and Omer Casher also discussed the importance of VRML. They noted that VRML is currently significantly less mature than say HTML, and so is likely to develop rapidly. Some of the issues to be resolved include;

The need for standards in architectural applications was noted by Vassilis Bourdakis. The industry has long recognised the need for standards and now there is a need to go beyond formats such as Autocad's DXF format. VRML may be the format we need as it is gaining considerable recognition.

Design Issues

The paper by Stephen Boyd Davis and John Lansdown raised some important issues of the design of virtual environments.

There has been a tendency for VR to be hailed as an unproblematic answer to many problems in computing, from database, through educational technology, to virtual museums. The task of making virtual environments is seen as a technical one - essentially of reconstructing reality in the computer. Indeed this is seen by many as a sufficient definition of VR. However, there are two clear problems. One is an assumption that a representation is the same thing as the thing it represents. The other misapprehension is that simulating reality will in itself be sufficient.

Even the most ambitious virtual reality will not be the reality it represents. It is clear that we are dealing with a representation: as creators of such environments we have both the obligations and the freedoms that any designer has in constructing a representation.

If we take the idea of a virtual museum - are we to limit ourselves to placing objects in fixed locations in a building of a given appearance? What is the point? It could be argued that a straightforward visual database is a better 'virtual museum' since it allows works to be located within as many dimensions as there are fields in the record. What do we gain by making a virtual physical construction? Nothing, unless we abandon some of the simplistic assumptions about virtuality. We are faced with a rich variety of choices. What should inform those choices? What questions should we ask ourselves?

These and other issues need to be addressed when using virtual environments. The adoption of non-realistic techniques, that is taking advantage of the non-physical nature of virtual environments (doing away with the physical constraints of distance and time) might benefit applications. The authors suggested that we need to stop thinking that the construction of virtual realities is a common-sense operation in which it is obvious what choices should be made, one in which design has no part.

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