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Alice Puts the Wonderland of Interactive Computer Graphics at Your Fingertips

From Inside UVA
November 22, 1996

By Charlotte Crystal

Just as Steven Spielberg started his film career with an 8mm camera, U.Va. engineering professor Randy Pausch wants the future giants of computer graphics to take their first baby steps with "Alice," a package of real-time, interactive 3-D graphics programming soft ware that is being developed at the University.

Alice will enable everyone with a personal computer, Windows 95 software and a VGA graphics card to move animal figures around on their computer screens just like the special effects gurus in Hollywood.

Why is the software called Alice?

"Because creating new, 3-D interactive graphics worlds sometimes has the same feel as in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' -- delightful, unexpected and full of-strange creatures," said its creator.

Pausch, associate professor of computer science and head of U.Va.'s User Interface Group, has led a hardy band of more than 40 computer science students -- many of them undergraduates -- and faculty members in developing Alice over the past five years. It's one of those projects that shows how research directly enhances a student's experience at U.Va., he said.

Last year Pausch learned some new twists and turns when he spent time with the Walt Disney Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, where he worked with the team developing Aladdin's Magic Carpet Adventure, now a popular attraction at Disneyland in California.

"The exciting thing about Alice is that now our tools are powerful enough that artists can make artistic decisions, rather than always having to produce sterile, 'engineering-like' displays," said Pausch.

Alice would also be useful for something like creating a 3-D model of a running V8 engine. "You [would] want to fly all around it, zoom in, pull parts out, click on them for more information, etc. Alice would be perfect for a task like that," Pausch offered by way of example.

The "alpha" version of Alice has been available for public testing since Aug. 4, when a team of Alice developers unveiled the software at the computer graphics conference, SIGGRAPH '96, in New Orleans. The final version will be released in the next few months and will also be available free over the Internet.

With Alice you can create your own scripts that control the motion of 3-D objects on your Windows 95 PC. (There should be an updated Windows NT version available by Christmas.) Alice objects can move, spin, change color, change size, make sounds, and can even react to the click of a mouse or to keyboard keys. In short, Alice is a "workbench" for trying out ideas in the realm of interactive 3-D graphics.

Visitors to the computer lab, where Alice shares space with the virtual reality team that is working with a Star Wars light sword, may hear mutterings that make no sense to the uninitiated. "The period of waves has to be even numbers or when you get to the end of the cycle it jumps," said one developer, while demonstrating his work on Alice to a room packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people who all appeared to understand what that meant.

On a recent class night, students demonstrated work they had done on the Alice program in the lab and then adjourned to a classroom for a quick dinner and work progress report. A few art students sat among the techies, offering to draw new objects or landscapes -- a hot air balloon, a seascape, a city skyline -- to build up Alice's toolbox.

The project is funded by a number of public and private sources, primarily the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In the long run, Alice could pay off in reducing the costs of producing simulations, according to Pausch.

To try Alice out, all you need to do is to download it into Windows 95 and it'll lead the way. (http://alice.virginia.edu).

Original Article | Local Copy


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