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Learning Without Limits: Virtual Reality Opening Doors For U.VA. Faculty

From Virginia.edu
June 21, 2005

By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Ms. Tomaselli is syndicated with The Los Angeles Times, writes for USA Weekend Magazine, American Medical News, the Washington Post and The New York Times. For the past two years she was artist-in-residence for Albemarle County School District and each summer, teaches creative writing for the University of Virginia's Young Writer's Workshop.

"A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace,
hope fading nightly. All the speed he took,
all the turns he's taken and the corners
he'd cut in Night City, and still he'd see the
matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic
unfolding accross the colorless void."

Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984

Here is a cyberpunk novel—Neuromancer—a prophetic tale of ruthless, dominant corporations and virtual simulation. A tale written before virtual worlds were real and reality, virtual. A tale that some say was the blueprint for Cyberspace; the world that became far more valuable than its creator ever imagined.

Cyberspace became a world of Castles and knights, avatars and 3-D chat. A world of bowling from the living room, of crashing a plane and walking away unscathed, of operating on virulent tumors and dissecting animals without using a scalpel. It is the world of virtual reality, that place of mind expansion and understanding, of trying without doing, of experiencing that which is gone or never existed. That place between what we can really touch and what we only imagine.

Virtual reality is more than headsets and games. It is immersive, interactive, sensory and free. It is travel, history, adventure and learning: It's being able to walk the gravel path of famous poets or orators; it is the construction of entire cities, and the excavation of ancient cultures long buried. And these days, at U.Va. it is the blending of disciplines, of art, science, architecture and literature. "I am drawn to virtual reality technology because it strikes me as a highly effective way to help students and scholars visualize and understand complex lost worlds such as ancient Rome," says Bernard Frischer, professor of classics and art history and director of The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at U.Va. "In the twenty-first century, real-time 3D-computer models of cultural heritage sites will become as common in history, art history, archeology and classics classrooms as two-dimensional 35mm slides were in the twentieth."

Virtual reality is more than head sets and
games. It is immersive, interactive, sensory,
and free. It is travel, history, adventure, and
learning: It's being able to walk to gravel
path of famous poets or orators; it is the
construction of entire cities, and the
excavation of ancient cultures long buried.

Virtual reality applications at the University are not new and U.Va. researchers have been exploring this medium for more than 15 years. These days the applications and tools have evolved, giving faculty undreamed of possibility, and U.Va. enjoys a position of high esteem. Among its gems, the University counts: a virtual reality theatre in the making and ready for use next year, with faculty like Frischer, who will unveil a virtual recreation of Rome and has already re-created the Roman Forum and the Colosseum; Dennis Proffit, professor of psychology who uses virtual reality to study the psychology of perception (see the Spring 2003 issue of virginia.edu for the story "The Information Cockpit Gives New Meaning to the Word "Space"); David Luebke, assistant professor of computer science, who re-created Monticello for a virtual tour at a New Orleans art exhibit. No wonder researchers from around the world are applying for fellowships in hopes of studying here. "Under John Unsworth's leadership, IATH established itself as the premier research center in the United States for digital humanities," says Frischer. "It is my hope to build on the achievements of the past by helping to make digital humanities a sustainable and integral approach to humanistic research both at Virginia and at other major universities around the world."

A Colosseum of Ideas

Here is the Roman Colosseum, a vast elliptical arena. Not ruins or shards of history - here it is in its original 400 AD form, with tiers of arcades, 80 walls and wooden arena floor. Take a minute and walk through its darkened passages, past the chambers where wild beasts waited, toward the light of the outside ring. Perhaps just as the gladiators did centuries ago, stand at one of nearly 80 openings to the performance area. Imagine being called; imagine the deafening din of 50,000 blood thirsty fans. Why not walk out into the ring? Or fly and move about above the spectator fray? You decide. This is virtual reality—a virtual reality that Bernard Frischer helped create.

Frischer, who came to U.Va. in August to direct IATF, is a leading scholar in the application of digital technologies to humanities research and education. Founder and director of the Cultural Virtual Reality Lab at UCLA [http://www.cvrlab.org/], which uses three-dimensional computer modeling to reconstruct cultural heritage sites, Frischer has overseen many significant projects, including virtual recreations. "I never dreamt I would get this job," he says, almost like a kid after a giant roller coaster ride. "This is the center of the universe for digital humanities."

Creating the Roman Colosseum or the Roman Forum—or the entire city of Rome for that matter (which was not built in a day)—takes a team. "It is far beyond what one person can easily achieve," he says. "Unless, perhaps, a universal genius." Key to a project's success, he says, is the scientific advisory committee that authors a project. "Take for example the Roman Forum, it makes sense only if it represents the best information," he says. "One person alone cannot tell what it looked like. It takes many to provide modeling data."

In addition to the scientific advisory committee, there are the model makers who work closely with the authors to create the 3-D model. "The model makers are all trained architects, archeologists, and are steeped in tradition of the culture," he says. "There is an exchange of information. Creating a computer model is not a mere transfer from minds. It's a disciplined process of seeing, going back. It is a dialogue between model makers and experts, and new ideas fill in the gaps. Sometimes we must change as we gain new knowledge."

The process can take a long time; Frischer's Roman Forum took seven years and over $1 million. So fundraising is very important, he says.

Even after the model is created, the team is not finished. There are presentation issues—getting it into the theatre, downloading it onto local machines. There is the audio: 32 channels and 3-D sound. "There are 400 sound sources," says Frischer. "The team is complicated."

Another presentation consideration is cyber sickness, that queasy feeling if the presentation moves too quickly or turns too sharply. About 25% of viewers get motion sickness with virtual reality, Frischer says. To counter that reaction, he uses a navigator and a presenter. The navigator is in the control booth and the presenter has to say, please let's go to the left, so the audience is prepared for the turn.

To help with designing and building the virtual reality theatre in Clemons where the Rome model and other VR projects will be used, Frischer put together the Virginia Visualization Group. Twenty-five faculty from various disciplines including musicology, architecture and psychology will pool resources and expertise in guiding the VR theatre's creation. The facility will be used for teaching and research.

Although he's holding the details close to the vest, Frischer says they are planning a new project based on an American subject. "I am looking forward to some American projects. Others have created contemporary cities, but we're talking about colonial and that hasn't been done yet," he says.

He also looks forward to underwriting fellowships that will bring in scholars from around the world; fostering academy/industry relations, by playing a bigger role in product development and application; keeping his own research going; and writing a book on the history of modeling.

Not to mention his current quest: discovering the best winery in Charlottesville.

Virtual Windows, Real Worlds

Here is a window in New Orleans, a 3-D peek into Thomas Jefferson's Monticello library 1,000 miles away. Go ahead, walk up to the West Portico, put on the glasses, lean into the window. Over there, there's Jefferson's red leather chair, cracked and worn. Lean out, look left, see the books, the photos. It's OK—curious visitors to the President's home did it years ago, and you can, too. It's virtual, it's your view. "With this tracker (polarized glasses), the sense is that as you move, the objects in the scene move correctly," says David Luebke. "That is what makes it look much more real than a 3-D movie."

"We wanted to recreate a sense of peeking
into Jefferson's house," Luebke says.
"The beautiful thing of the window is
that it is a metaphor people
immediately understand."

For Luebke, it's about capturing reality. It's about recording a place in time; about measuring the real world; about light and how it is reflected; about creating depth and a sense of scale, about the stains on the carpet, the sense of presence. When he began his Scanning Monticello project, all these things came into play. "It's like virtual tourism," he says. "Cultural documentation, conveying a sense of presence to visitors looking at this place."

It was Luebke's goal, along with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to create an accurate model of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home. Using a laser-range scanner (for an illustration and explanation of how the laser-range scanner works, please see http://www.cs.virginia.edu/Monticello/), which can gather millions of data points quickly and precisely, the constructed a highly accurate 3-D model of Monticello. The model was incorporated in a display at for the New Orleans Museum of Art [http://www.noma.org/], Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. "We wanted to recreate a sense of peeking into Jefferson's house," Luebke says. "The beautiful thing of the window is that it is a metaphor people immediately understand."

At the time he was asked to create the exhibit, Luebke had already been gathering the data to produce a virtual Monticello. Unlike some virtual reality designers, Luebke's work is image based. The laser-scanner he uses—DeltaSphere 3000—functions much like a digital camera and range finder. Creating an image of a scene and then measuring the distance from the device to every pixel of the image, Luebke and colleagues are able to add realistic depth.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Luebke's team used their equipment to scan several of Monticello's rooms. Capturing the full 3-D experience requires dozens of room scans from different angles. All of the scans—at 100 megabytes of data per scan—are aligned with one another to form a single, 3-D model of the room. Finally, the display system renders views of the 3-D scene in real time. The researchers' eventual goal for their technology is to make the model acquisition process fast, inexpensive and automatic. "Much of this is now done by hand," says Luebke. "Ultimately we would like to walk around with a video camera and then let the computer create the images. We're not there yet. What we want is for the computer to automatically acquire depth."

For the exhibit, the New Orleans Museum of Art created a 55-foot-wide red brick façade of Monticello's west portico for the virtual window display. Two windows in the façade offered the view into Jefferson's library. Using polarized glasses, visitors participated in the experience by leaning in and out and moving to see more or less of the library.

More than 100,000 museum visitors were voyeurs in Jefferson's world.

"One of the reasons that interactive computer graphics is so fascinating for me," says Luebke. "Is that I know immediately if I've produced a lifelike experience."


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