Virtual Tourism

Presences has a special issue devoted to Virtual Heritage- which gives me an excuse to take up the virtual tourism issue again.

One article describes the University of New York at Buffalos Virtual Site Museum: “an interactive virtual reality interface for… archaeological research, education, and public demonstration…. precise, authoritative, and integrated archaeological and historical files… Running in real-time, it provides full-body immersion, 3D ancient figure animation, and a virtual artifacts interface and corresponding user-oriented interactions in a functional virtual environment.” The site allows you to view short movies. Our expectations of games are now so high that these look quite primitive, but no doubt they are good for their purpose.

Another paper describes the Virtual Old Prague project. Sadly, I cant get this to work: I downloaded the Cortona VRML client as advised, but I think Ihave a Java error. For me one of the most interesting things about this project is that it is written in PHP.There are very full notes about it; interestingly, it envisages users adding to the model: “The system also provides a set of tools and a know-how that can be used by general public to create new parts of Prague and by system administrators to manage the whole model….. Another application vastly reduces the work necessary to create a new model of a building that can then be added to the database. The last tool is a web interface that provides to users information necessary for creation of new buildings (position, size, elevation,…) and enables them to upload newly created buildings to the database. A set of instructions describing how to transfer a real building into a texture that can be used for building creation is also provided and is available in this documentation as well as documentation for all parts of the system.”

Another Presences article describes the Augurscope, “a portable mixed reality interface for outdoors…. a display is wheeled to different locations and rotated and tilted to view a virtual environment that is aligned with the physical background. Video from an onboard camera is embedded into this virtual environment. Our design encompasses physical form, interaction and the combination of a GPS receiver, electronic compass, accelerometer and rotary encoder for tracking. ” Presences says: “While exploring a heritage site, groups of visitors can experience simulated scenes from the past from a dynamic user-controlled viewpoint by moving, rotating, and tilting the device. The development focused on creating an interface to a visualization of a medieval castle as it used to appear in relation to its current, quite different site”. Here the system is beingused to enhance reality – hi-tech version of a tour guide perhaps?

Presences also covers a Birmingham University project to re-purpose seismic data to model a pre-historic landscape. Personally Im not very moved by descriptions of “the exceptionally warm interglacial known as the Ipswichian (130,000 – 110,000), when hippopotami roamed Trafalgar Square”, but once again this offers a kind of virtual enahncement of the visual landscape.

In other words, these techniques offer th ability to recreate existing or past landscapes for those who are not there, or to enhance the perceptions of reality for those who are there.

The Presences edition is not the only sign of interest in this area. For instance, the 11th international conference on virtual systems and multimedia” included papers on simulations of: the Roman Odeon of Aphrodisias, Hampton Court Palace and (like Presences)Yuanmingyuan gardens.

The Swiss company CyberCity is alsoa ctive in this field and has just released a digital Hamburg: “The city model includes more than 300.000 buildings and will be offered in three different Levels-of-Detail: non-textured block models, non-textured detailed models and textured detailed models. The city center will consist of over 2.000 buildings and will include approximately 40.000 façade images.” This is partly funded by the city administration.

Compare this with feeble attempts like
Virtual Venice
– yet another
Virtual Venice
– all just slide shows
– or another Virtual Venice which seems to be someone just camping on a nice domain name
– or a strange and tedious online game (last updated in 1994 and appears to be entirely typed-in dialogue)

and you see how far things are coming along.

Venice is so full of tourists these days that the authorities are thinking of controlling entry to the city (as already happens at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua). Perhaps one day there will be two-level access: actual, for the rich, and virtual, for the rest of us? I hope it doesnt go that way: rather that the virtual enhances the actual experience.

Must go now, for an actual experience in Kew Gardens. (Of which at least one virtual tour exists, though its just one of those Java circular panoramas you can pan around.)

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Virtual tourism

Had a drink last night with Michelle and John Battelle, who are over here for the FT/ Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award. Johns incisive book The Search is a finalist.

John reminded me about the use of Mental Ray (and Renderman) for architecture, engineering design(eg Solidworks), and simulation of flows inside buildings, as well as their original purpose of digital entertainment (eg The Incredibles).

Disgruntled biology teachers say (see this previous post) that simulated tourism is not as good as the real thing. Started me thinking.

Among the Mental Ray offshoots, Reality Server offers a “Fully interactive and collaborative interaction with 3D design content, guaranteed independently of the front-end device capabilities…Many users can simultaneously work or play collaboratively and remotely.”

Desk-top haptic devices from Sensable simulate the force feed-back of handling objects or moving controls, though not the actual texture you would feel.

Most virtual tourism is pretty limited stuff. Some, like this Virtual Tour of Historic Philadelphia are little more than slide shows. Others, like this virtual tour of Rome use panoramic movies which the viewer controls – ie you can look around you. (The software to do this is available here, or this company will do the whole thing for you.)

The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas already has a quarter mile long Grand Canal – view this and weep, so theres obviously a market here somewhere. Its not just Venice that suffers from this: Parisians in Disneyland France can see a simulated US town.(It even works in reverse: according to an article in Wired magazine, Venetians themselves worry that “Venice will become a kind of Disneyland, where we Venetians are stand-ins who commute from the mainland to work – part-time actors, like the people in Mickey Mouse costumes.”)

The trouble is, so far its been badly done: Disneyland and Mickey Mouse have become synonymous with partial reality: but now we could do much better.

What if you built a virtual replica of St Marks Square in Venice (and put Nigel Gilberts cafe there…)? This could be viewed and heard through a virtual reality headset (or on a surround screen.) You would be immersed in the scene, could look around and interact with other visitors, and perhaps even with intelligent bots representing locals. It would still not be quite the same as being there, but it would be a lot better than a slide show, with the following advantages:
– cheaper, easier and quicker to get there
– available at any time
– no searching at airports.

You could start to add features which are not available (or usually available) in real life. For instance, a haptic simulator could teach you to propel a gondola, without the risk of falling in. If you walked along the Riva degli Schiavoni to the Museo Maritimo and saw the 1942 Maiale human torpedo, you could instantly compare it with the 1944 Bieber midget submarine in the Imperial War Museam in London. (You couldnt touch them, but then youre not supposed to touch the Maiale either.) Your virtual tour could include hyperlinks to enormous amounts of background information, allowing you to follow up any aspect you preferred (history, art, literature, etc.), with the system intelligently tracking your interests and murmuring in your ear the information you were most likely to want. You could also visualise events that have not happened (eg what if Venice floods) or flashback to real past events (eg the last high water in the Piazetta). Youd always be there at the right time for Carnevale or the Biennale, if you wanted to.

What you couldnt do is taste the coffee or the gelati, of course. As far as I know no-one has yet simulated smells or tastes, unless you count Mr Cantu at the Moto Restaurant in Chicago.

But if the tourist venues cooperated, you could visit them on-line: no queueing outside St Marks, seats always available at La Fenice! You could handle rare books in the libraries without damaging them.

If the municipality of Venice paid for the basic simulation, the individual attractions could charge extra in just the same way as they do in real life – it would be the equivalent of televising themselves with a set of permanent web-cams, and would provide the venue owners with an extra revenue stream. The business model shouldnt be too difficult.

How would you gather data for such a simulation? Well, John tells me that Google is already working on gathering visual data of some US cities, so that a Google Map can become a very detailed 3D walkthrough, based on a recent (but static) set of images. I pointed out that London has one of the highest concentrations of surveillance cameras in the world: will we one day see them all networked, and the images available in real time to provide a simulated London that looks exactly like the real-time reality?

If so, I reflected as we left the bar on a rather cold night, with the District (underground) Line not working, virtual tourism of London might be a very attractive alternative. And I think Im right in saying that technically we could achieve all of this, now.

Socially, and in terms of the investment and coordination needed, its another matter. Ethically, Im also not sure. Would it drive real tourism upmarket, as the alternative became so much cheaper? Its been possible for some time to listen to the worlds best orchestras on recordings, and music seems to survive: I suspect more people now have access to it than if we all had to hear live performances. Would we become less and less able to distinguish reality? Are there implications for civil liberties? (eg if someone in California can watch me walk round London?) And of course if John and Michelle had only visited London virtually, sending an award-bot to the FT/ Goldman Sachs ceremony, I wouldnt have had a fascinating evening.

But what a great project…

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