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The Potential of VR for UK Higher Education
Group Report: Software
Introduction to the Group Work
The emerging use of VR systems in a number of application domains is supported by the falling costs associated with the required VR peripherals and high performance interactive graphics platforms. However, the penetration of VR systems is hampered by the time consuming process of constructing interactive synthetic worlds. This activity can be supported by the provision of effective software tools to aid the construction of these worlds and a number of commercial VR toolkits currently exist on the market. The presently available software tools differ in the functionality they offer, the degree of programming competence required etc. The findings of an initial study to compare different VR toolkits will be presented at the workshop. Many attributes of existing VR toolkits exist in an attempt to overcome some of the performance limitations of currently available hardware. However, as a catalyst to this group's initial discussions I would like to focus attention on not what is currently available but rather on what is required. To this end I propose the hypothetical 'Ideal VR' software system which when run on the 'Ideal VR' platform gives rise to the following:
- zero lags - infinite update speed, independent of synthetic world complexity
- absolute accuracy on spatial positioning, collision detection and timings
- multimodal display supported, i.e. visual, auditory, haptic
- full range of input/output peripherals supported
- easy integration of custom made peripherals
- allows the importation (without loss of information) of data files from all required sources
- allows data files to be exported in required format for use in other applications
- information available on user performance etc
Synthetic worlds supported
- can simulate all manner of physical properties and interactions, the modelling of natural phenomena etc
- synthetic worlds may be populated with autonomous agents
- multi-user systems supported resulting in shared experiences
Synthetic world creation
- synthetic worlds may be created without he need for programming skills.
- non-immersive synthetic world creation, viewing and exercising supported
- users may create synthetic worlds whilst immersed within the VR system
- body-centric and indirect interaction paradigms supported
- allows the porting of the synthetic world to any platform
- software allows automatic reconfiguration dependent on detected hardware and peripherals encountered
- the toolkit should be affordable
The above system would certainly allow the creation of compelling synthetic worlds, but would it fulfil all our pedagogic requirements? Furthermore, what are the implications of relaxing the above attributes and what impact will this have on resulting systems, their utility in higher education, etc. I would like to take the opportunity of the forthcoming workshop to address these issues, assess trade-offs and focus on future developments which may include issues associated with:
- data management
- file conversion filters
- educational requirements
- support of standards
- synthetic world generation and sharing
Nick Avis, University of Hull
Terry Hewitt reported back on the discussions of the group. He started by noting the need for the community to manage change as we take on areas of new technology.
There is a need for:
- a common software base - with a minimum specification - need to define what tools are needed and what are available
- a set of object databases with associated utilities which would operate at a higher level than many of the current systems so that users can deal with objects, e.g. chair - concerns re portability - would need to be distributed - would need to include different representations, e.g. geometry, sound, video. We would need to be able to find objects and have suitable searching tools
- authoring tools which suit a wide range of applications, for example it was felt that while there are many tools suitable for engineering use, there is little or nothing ideally suited to the authoring and design of architectural models. Distributed search tools should be available from within the authoring tool.
- a substantive set of non trivial case studies should be undertaken, and made freely available to promote and demonstrate the usefulness of VR.
- it was felt that there was a definite lack of infrastructure for VR in the UK, and also a lack of awareness of what is available. There is a need to increase awareness of UKVRSIG and VR club.
- it was felt that there is often an overselling of immersive VR for inappropriate uses.
Following further discussion within the group, the following recommendations were made.
These first six recommendations reflect a need for a common software base.
1. Produce guidelines / recommendations on what software might form a common kernel for VR applications (this should be based on the AGOCG funded work being carried out by Nick Avis)
2. Should this software be commercially available, we need to encourage a CHEST agreement
3. Should this require major software developments, encourage Research Council, etc to fund it.
4. Recognising widespread use of DVS and SuperScape and that they are produced by UK companies, encourage a CHEST agreement (no upfront money) with the target price being less than £1000 for a research group purchase
5. Promote efforts to standardise (ISO and de facto) - in particular VRML and PREMO and its VR component
6. Provide guidelines for integrating existing components, e.g. Multimedia, Visualization, animation with VR systems
There is a need for consideration of authoring tools:
7. Develop a number of substantive application case studies that are freely available (architecture, visualization, CSCW, sound, MultiMedia)
8. Report on availability / requirements of "authoring" tools
We need to consider modelling and model databases as well:
9. Commission a report of tools for creating, modifying, interchanging (large) geometric (and audio and video) models (hierarchies, LoD). This should focus on:
- what tools are currently available ( are any of catia, hdf, dvs suitable)
- the need for both visually attractive and geometrically accurate modelling
- the need for a model to hold different representations of objects to be used depending on the use of the model (i.e different representations for a visual walk around from those used for an acoustic modelling.
We also need to consider recommendations regarding infrastructure
10. There should be better promotion through the existing channels (agocg, web, midas, ukvrsig, essex etc etc) of:
- model interchange
- model format conversion tools
- products and services
We need to raise awareness through seminars and workshops and to promote use of the products selected by any evaluation. If needed training materials should be made available for the selected products.
A research/discussion forum needs to be set up to work towards common software (something like GNUVRxxxx) with subsequent dissemination of reports produced.
The group suggested a timetable for the recommendations made:
- CHEST deals (recommendation 4)
- Identify gaps (recommendations 1, 6, 7, 8, 9)
- Infrastructure (recommendation 10)
- Filling gaps -> EPSRC (recommendation 3)
- Fillings gaps -> other (recommendations 2, 10)
- Integration and interoperability with existing (non VR) systems (recommendations 5, 6, 10)
Virtual Environments Visualisation