by Martin Göbel
About ten years have passed since NASA AMES started investigating Virtual Environments. Devices like head coupled displays, data gloves and spatial trackers were used in the initial applications demonstrating space stations. In the meantime, with increasing graphics performance, economical stereo display technology and the use of much simpler interaction devices (than the gloves), the applications of Virtual Reality (a term which was replaced by Virtual Environments in the scientific community) have already achieved a quality and complexity which really allows an industrial use.
Seen as an innovation in human computer communication Virtual Environment R&D initially concentrated on Presentation, Interaction and Simulation: aiming to provide information to most human senses (at least the visual, auditive and tactile channels), aiming to support direct and intuitive interaction with applications (by speech, gestures and further human expressions), and aiming to develop autonomous object behaviour within virtual worlds.
In this issue a number of projects are presented at different labs in Europe that cover various aspects in Virtual Environment research. Techniques for visual (1) and haptic (2) presentation are developed, various display systems ranging from small and mobile (3) use to integrated room-size systems (12, 4) are investigated and physical phenomena are simulated in real time (5). Since applications have grown in complexity, quite a number of issues have been found to be relevant for R&D in Virtual Environments. The overall goal is to enhance performance, accuracy and handling of Virtual Environment applications. Research reported so far in this issue concentrates on modeling and data acquisition (6, 7) to build virtual worlds more easily and on tracking and registration (9, 10) for reasons of accuracy and wireless devices. Since higher bandwidth networking has been established for telecommunication, distributed and multi-user Virtual Environments are under construction. These allow many people to meet in shared virtual spaces (11, 12, 13, 14, 15) and raise questions on how a human is presented in virtual space. Behaviour and expression (16) know from human 'face-to-face' communication will augment telecommunication and cooperation applications in the future.
Today, the core applications of Virtual Environments can be identified by their industrial relevance. Engineering visualization (19, 20) fosters a better and rapid understanding of complex phenomena, such as fluid dynamics, crash simulations, etc. Architecture and design has been one of the very early walk-thru application fields. Today Virtual Environment techniques are used in interactive planning tools attempting to replace traditional CAD systems and in digital archives for Cultural heritage (17, 18). Further applications can be found in medical training and engineering training like assembly or maintenance (23, 24).
To conclude, the Virtual Environment R&D situation in Europe is still increasing in major research centers but also at universities. While US universities currently investigate in Responsive Workbenches, European industry is heavily setting up CAVE-like installations. Since funding programmes have been established by European and national agencies and since automotive and telecommunication industry considers Virtual Environment technology as being relevant to improve their products, processes and services, there is no longer any doubt that Virtual Environment applications are now a tool rather than a toy.
Martin Göbel - GMD
Tel: +49 2241 14 2367