Virtually there

Bob Stone, scientific director at Virtual Presence, pioneer of virtual reality, and self confessed headset abuser, talks to Roger Brownlie

Virtual reality (VR) has the reputation of an ambitious technology that was just too far ahead of its time. Picture a presenter on `Tomorrow’s World’ fumbling in an activated suit and headset, struggling with the simplest of tasks in a Commodore 64 created world. VR was ahead of its time. But perhaps it’s time has come.

`The situation is today, if you have a £2500 Pentium III PC with a £100 graphics card, you have a VR ready machine that outperforms some of the graphics super computers that were out eighteen months ago,’ claims Bob Stone.

`There are, however, still applications where very high end animation must be solved by the likes of Silicon Graphics workstations. They are still the right products for that job.’

Bob Stone has seen VR through the experimental years and has witnessed many fledgling companies come and go. His own company Virtual Presence, perhaps the most established VR company in Europe, has been recently acquired by Muse Technologies of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

`When you come down to trying to make VR more accessible to engineers either in large companies or the SME supply chain, then we now have commercial, off-the-shelf hardware and software products that run extremely well in real-time. Let’s say £2500 worth of machine and probably about double that for the software.’

`There are bolt-ons you can buy for CAD packages which enable you to fly around the image in real time. That’s not VR, that’s a free navigation package. The functionality of VR packages is that they enable you to interact with the objects in a more intelligent fashion so you can carry out rapid prototyping and instant change without having to go back into the CAD model.’

`For example, you can collaborate work across networks, internet and intranet. You can link the CAD data to databases of all kinds. You can endow objects with intelligence, with other sensory features such as 3D sound, you can explore data using force and touch. VR packages make the CAD data more accessible to non-CAD users.’

The official line at Muse is that its VR products provides a better way to experience, analyse and understand all types of data using sight, sound and even touch to unlock hidden trends and achieve new levels of discovery and problem solving. Bob Stone informs that a smell feature is also becoming available.

At the heart of this methodology at Muse is internet collaboration, a concept where you navigate through an artificial universe across cyberspace. Metaphysically speaking it’s incredible, but Bob Stone takes concepts like this in his stride.

`The collaboration tools work in much the same way as other VR products in that collaborating in the virtual world requires similar workstations at the end of the communications link, be it internet, fibre optic, ISDN or whatever. Both those workstations hold the same virtual model. The changes made in one are reflected in the other workstation, and in real-time, simply by a small packet of data bytes being sent between the two. The model already exists on two workstations but the changes are transmitted between the two workstations.

`With other VR products you need to be able to download 3D viewers in order to view VR objects. We use VRML which is a fairly robust format. To view, you download a plug-in for a VRML browser and off you go.’

Not to be confused with engineering simulation, which is not real-time and still requires computing power for thousands of finite element calculations, VR is well suited to situations when the human is present, and the human decisions made have an immediate impact on an environment.

`But’, says Bob Stone, `the boundaries are blurring all the time. A lot of simulation packages are now capable of being used in a VR setting.’

`In manufacturing, once you’ve done the factory design, de-bottlenecked the factory operation, found all the clashes and problems, and you need to get the human involved, you can put the helmet on, project it onto a wall in 3D, and use VR for human prototyping. All this can be done with VR.’

`Nine times out of ten we start off with an engineering model as a computer aided design. For example, when designing submarines, Vickers spent enormous amounts investing CAD products but they still wanted to be able to use the CAD models to train naval ratings to find their way around nuclear submarines. So we’re taking that massive collection of CAD data and using VR to make it all real-time for the purposes of interaction with non-CAD specialists.’

Talk of navigation in virtual worlds is easy. How it is actually achieved is the special part. Enter the `Craft’, the Muse virtual navigational vehicle.

`It’s almost as if you were sitting in a trapezoidal shaped craft. The idea is that it gives you a visual framework to explore the data, and you can fly through the data as if you were flying through “space”.’

`The reason for the craft is because when you are navigating around masses of data it is so easy to get disorientated and very easy to get lost, so you need to be able to structure movements as closely as you can.’

The Craft allows a user to travel anywhere, at any scale, into space, into a mechanism, or whatever environment needs investigation.

When navigating through data mass, you may need to focus on a particular object that needs special investigation. Users can grab and tether objects by pointing the nose of the craft and `clicking’ on a control panel. Once tethered a data stream can be acquired pertaining to that object.

Amongst other features, the craft can communicate with you in a male or female voice depending on whether it is an instructional or an advisory message.

`It’s good old applied psychology,’ says Bob Stone. `But the importance of this is that VR is becoming much more than a visual experience.’

`We are now talking about systems that involve 3D sound, speech synthesis, and force and touch feedback, which is what VR has been trying to do for years – make use of all our natural God given skills.’

INFORMATION: Muse Technologies Tel: 00 1 505 843 6873

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