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Immersive Interactive Virtual Reality in the MuseumMaria RoussouFoundation of the Hellenic World254 Pireos St.Athens 17778 Greece+30-1-4835300, +30-1-4834634,, The use of immersive Virtual Reality (VR) technology is a relatively recent trend enjoyedalmost exclusively by the academic, military, and industrial research and development communities.However, as VR technologies mature, research is expanding from the military and scientificvisualisation realm into more multidisciplinary areas, such as education, art, culture, and thehumanities. As representative institutions involved in the research and presentation of these fields,museums, cultural centres, and entertainment venues may be in a better position to make use ofadvanced virtual reality technologies in order to investigate their educational potential whileeffectively shaping how they deliver public education and recreation. This paper will discuss theissues involved in using state-of-the-art interactive virtual environments in cultural public spaces bypresenting the virtual environments developed for learners of all ages at the Foundation of theHellenic World (FHW), a cultural heritage institution of informal education located in Athens.Virtual Reality in the MuseumThe development of new interactivetechnologies has inevitably impacted the moretraditional sciences and arts. This is moreevident in the case of novel interactivetechnologies that fascinate the broad public, ashas always been the case with virtual reality.The blending of disciplines and the evolution oftechniques has brought forth the need forbetter modes of communication.Consequently, virtual reality interfaces,interaction techniques, and devices haveimproved greatly in order to provide morenatural and obvious modes of interaction andmotivational elements. Nevertheless, theprohibitive costs and inaccessibility of VRtechnologies, coupled with issues of usability,staff training, operation, and maintenance,presentimportant drawbacks for the use of VR inpublic spaces, making it difficult to incorporatein dwindling museum or school budgets. Inspite of these concerns and objectionsregarding the appropriateness and educationalefficacy of virtual reality, there remaincompelling reasons for believing that VRenvironments for the broad public warrantserious investigation and can provide strongtools for learning. Institutions of informaleducation, such as museums, research, andcultural centres are in a better position to makeuse of such advanced systems and investigatetheir educational potential while effectivelyshaping how they deliver public entertainmentand education.Of particular interest to museums in the useof virtual reality displays and computer-generated interactive experiences is the factthat they can allow visitors to travel throughspace and time without stepping out of themuseum building [5]. The potential totranscend the physical location of the builtenvironment and the growing sense of theeducative function of the museum juxtaposedwith the commercial pressure has leadmuseums to consider virtual reality as anecessary component in the arsenal of tools toeducate, entertain, and dazzle [8].When used for cultural heritage purposes, avirtual reality exhibit may give scholars acompletely new way of communicating thescientific results of archaeological investigationwithin the scientific community, improving alsothe way in which these results arecommunicated to the public [3]. In addition tothe fairly photorealistic representation ofplaces, people, and sites that do not exist,never existed, or may not be easilyexperienced, there are two basic advantagesoffered by virtual reality programs: theimmersive experience and interactivecapabilities that characterize this medium.Immersion is the illusion of being in theprojected world, being surrounded by theimage and sound in a way, which makes youbelieve that you are really there. It offers a"better than real life" or "better than beingthere" experience. Interaction refers to the factthat members of the audience are not merely aviewer of the realistic scenery, but can activelyparticipate in the program and determine whattheir experience will be. Since the contentdisplayed in VR exhibits is not predeterminedor pre-recorded, but generated in "real-time",the audience is able to interact with theprograms and define their behavior. If, forexample, the program exhibited is the journeythrough an ancient city, museum visitors canchoose the path through the city just as in areal tour. They may also "knock" on doors toenter buildings, or fly up high to view the cityfrom above with the use of simple devices suchas a joystick.Although virtual reality suffers immenselyfrom media hyperbole and thus has not livedup to its promises, the development of VRsystems is evolving and gaining territory in themuseum world for many of the reasonsmentioned above.An example caseThe Foundation of the Hellenic World(FHW), based in Greece, is a non-profitcultural heritage institution with a mission topreserve and disseminate Hellenic culture,historical memory and tradition through thecreative use of state-of-the-art multimedia andtechnology. Its aim is to promote theunderstanding of the past and to syntheticallyand comprehensively present the history, lifeand values of the Hellenic world in its broadergeographical evolution. The goal of theFoundation is to bring together archaeologists,historians, computer scientists, and artists inorder to visualize their ideas and utilize thehighest level of technology and resources forresearch and education within the context ofHellenic cultural heritage. To this purpose ituses the best of contemporary museum theory,developments in computer science, and the useof audiovisual media and interactive exhibits.The Foundation's Cultural Center stands onthe site of a former industrial area that hasbeen converted into an attractivecontemporary complex of buildings located inAthens. The overall design, architectural,electrical and acoustic plans of the complexmake it one of the most modern and well-designed cultural centers in Europe. Thiscultural center also houses some of the mostadvanced virtual reality exhibits that are opento public worldwide.The virtual reality activities developed by theFHW serve a central role in the successfulrealization of the Centres overall mission.Virtual reality technology is used to advanceFigure 2: Visitors immersed in the Kivotossystem (ReaCTor)the research and understanding of Hellenicculture. Activities focus both on theestablishment of an infrastructure and thecreation of educational and exhibition content.The goal is to put together innovativeimmersive environments for the display of theFoundation's educational programs and 3Dreconstructions. To this purpose FHW hasestablished two immersive VR systems. Thefirst is an ImmersaDesk (Figure 1) running ona Silicon Graphics Octane visualworkstation with 2 R10000 processors at250Mhz. It consists of a 2m x 2.38m back-projected panel tilted at a 45 angle. Stereoviewing is achieved using lightweight liquidcrystal shutter glasses. The system provideshead and hand tracking, user input through alightweight hand-held device, called a wand,for interaction and audio from loudspeakers.Figure 1: Children exploring heritage sites on theMagic Screen (ImmersaDesk)The second system is a ReaCTor(Figure 2) a 3m x 3m x 3m cubic immersiveVR system with four back-projection surfacespowered by a Silicon Graphics Onyx2with eight R12000 processors at 300Mhz andfour InfiniteReality2 visualizationsubsystems. Up to ten people can participatein the experience at the same time wearingspecial lightweight stereo glasses, which allowthem to see both the virtual and the physicalworld unobtrusively. The system structure andthe programs developed are fully interactive,providing individual visitors with completefreedom to control their movements throughthe use of the wand, and so develop acompletely unique interactive experience.Audio is enabled through the use ofloudspeakers.Approximately five hundred students visit theVR exhibits daily in groups of ten or less. Theduration of their experience in the systemsranges from 10 to 20 minutes. The numbersare large considering the experimental natureof the technology, a fact that proves for apromising technology.ApplicationsAt the FHW's cultural park, VR applicationsfunction in two basic ways: as aneducational/entertainment tool and as aninstrument of historic research, simulation, andreconstruction. Our core belief is that the bestexhibits drive visitors to actively participateand truly experience the landscape,architecture, and culture of ancient Greece inan extraordinary new way. Using highlyadvanced 3D technology, the stunning virtualreality installations let visitors take virtual toursthrough detailed reconstruction of heritagesites, enabling viewers to explore them fromunique pints of view. Some of the mainprojects undertaken by the VR team at FHWinclude: the reconstruction and virtual journeyFigure 3: A view of the Temple of Zeus at Olympiain virtual reality.Figure 4: The famous statue of Zeus at Olympia asseen through the doors of the temple.through the ancient city of Miletus by the coastof Asia Minor, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia,a series of interactive educational environmentsthat bring to life the magical world of Helleniccostume, and more. Other programs includeproductions to complement or highlightimportant events that shape our time, culture,or everyday life as well as experimentalenvironments and innovative collaborationswith scientists, universities, and artists, thatallow to gain insights on the creative use oftechnology.The premiere program, "A Journey throughAncient Miletus", propels visitors on a voyageof discovery to the city of Miletus as it wastwo thousand years ago; the temple of ApolloDelphinius, the Council House, the HellenisticGymnasium, the Ionic Stoa and the NorthAgora are some of the public buildings that canbe experienced. Participants can "walk"through or fly over the accurate three-dimensional reconstruction, "dive" into theharbor of ancient Miletus, explore the city as itunfolds through time, and experience the life ofits architectural glory, its people and theircustoms, habits, and way of life. With the useof the navigational device, visitors are free tochoose their own path in visiting importantpublic buildings. They can examine thearchitectural details and landscape from manydifferent perspectives, practice their orientationskills and get to understand the sense of scale,proportion, and space used by their ancestors.If they choose to fly close up to the columns,the architectural elements of the 3-D modelsfade into layers of higher detail, enabling theparticipants to experience an accuratereconstruction. Our next step in enhancing theeducational experience is to add constructionability, where the young visitors can switchbetween elements and compare the evolutionof style through the evolution of time in the city.The use of architectural detail in immersivereal-time virtual reality systems is difficult dueto the technical and performance restrictionsplaced by the real-time image generator. Hence, increase in detailand interactivity results iperformance decreasethat in turn creates a less believableexperience. We are technically trying toachieve better performance withoutcompromising quality and detail before we canadd the ability for a more constructionist andinteractive perspective.To reach the aforementioned architecturaldetail several steps are required. Ourknowledge of the topography of the city andthe history of its settlements is based on thesystematic archaeological research begun bythe French archaeological mission in 1868 andcontinued by the German archaeologicalinstitute of Constantinople from 1899 untiltoday. Collecting their findings and convertingthe data to digital usable form is the first step.The GIS team uses the terrain information tocreate low polygon views of the city in ordertoestablish a concept. The 3D Graphics teamuses the scientific data for the accurate andhigh detail digital reconstruction of thebuildings. The data is then passed to the VRteam where depending on the complexity ofthe models, polygon reduction and modelsimplification is performed to allow for a real-time and interactive virtual world. The finalexperience is not a simple presentation of databut an entire scenario developed by ascriptwriter who understands the medium andwrites to this purpose.Similarly, the Ionian city of Priene, a verygood example of the Hellenistic stylearchitecture, is the second ancient citycurrently being developed into a virtual realityexperience. The digital reconstruction of thelandscape and houses is already underway.The plan is to digitally reconstruct the entirecity, not just the important public buildings, asis the case with Miletus. Hence, from atechnical point of view, it should prove to be achallenging project. Another recent virtualreality experience highlights the splendor of thetemple of Zeus at Olympia (Figure 3),providing visitors with the opportunity toexperience the sheer glory of the famous statueof Zeus, one of the seven wonders of theworld, of which nothing remains today (Figure4).The Magical World of Byzantine costume(Figure 5) is the first in a series of educationalvirtual reality programs related to the exhibitionon the 4000 years of Hellenic costume,currently on view at the Hellenic CosmosCultural Center. The focus in this program isdifferent from the one above in that anaccurate reconstruction is not sought; rather aninteractive, magical experience with less detailand more interactivity is attempted. It brings tolife aspects of the Hellenic culture through anexperiential educational world created foryoung children. Similarly, the reconstruction ofa traditional olive oil press that can beoperated virtually by the visitors follows thesame interactive, experiential approach.The problemsThe introduction of high-end or virtualtechnologies in public settings runs up against anumber of issues that must be considered.Specifically, interactive learning environmentsmust take into account the physical context ofthe public space, support the conceptual andaesthetic standards of the learning purpose,and be functional and accessible to its intendedgroup of learners. Whether its the novelty ofinteractive technology and virtual realityexhibits or the compelling nature of theapplications themselves, visitors flock to seethings that are new and cutting edge, even ifthe content remains relatively unchanged. Thisgenerates added worries to educators andtechnologists alike who must design keepingtheir educational role in mind, yet providing theadded novelty, accommodating an increasingrange and types of educational experience, andenhancing motivation [6]. The uniqueness,cost, size, and fragility of VR aggravate theseproblems. VR technology will be deployed inconsiderably fewer numbers than personalcomputers; the existent application base isalmost non-existent; there is no standard staffdevelopment curricula or off the shelfcourseware; and technical support requiresvery specialised expertise.Clearly, another important point of particularrelevance to this kind of high-end technology isusability. Public viewing must be considered inthe context of hundreds of people who willvisit the immersive virtual reality site each day,more so if the site is set up to welcome visitorinteraction.Figure 6: Usability issues must be consideredwhen using immersive virtual reality with children.Practical issues and problems are especiallyapparent when the apparatus is not designedwith novice or special users in mind, as is thecase with most experimental high-endcomputer technology (Figure 6). In the case ofvirtual reality, for example, it is common formost systems to cause motion sickness; activestereoglasses are too large for small heads, toofragile, and too expensive to trust them withany excited visitor, let alone a child; childrenmust use both hands to operate hard-to-useand mostly custom-made interaction devices;special ties must be used to hold stereoglasseson children's' heads; and in some systems it ismay even be necessary to deploy supportsystems for smaller users to stand up higher inorder to achieve the correct viewing angle.Good sight lines, ample seating whereapplicable, comfortable viewing for extendedperiods, good field of view, and ergonomicsare some of the issues that must be addressedwhen designing a unique, high-endenvironment. The interactive experience mustalso have an easy to learn and simple to useinterface, which is accessible to a wide rangeof skill levels and requires virtually no visitortraining.Projection-based virtual reality systemsovercome some of the limitations imposed byolder technology: users wear less and lightergear and are not isolated from their realsurroundings; virtual spaces are naturallyblended with real objects, such as the user'shands and body; and multiple users cansimultaneously share the same virtualexperience [7]. More specifically, CAVE-likesystems offer unlimited opportunities for theexploration of virtual worlds, while projectiontables are ideal for interaction with singleobjects and applications. Immersive displaysutilising curved screens are appropriate forwalkthroughs and can be well suited for publicpresentations as they require no specialviewing skills. Moreover, they are capable ofproviding real-time experiences for largegroups, including guided tours, grouptelepresence, and interactive simulations [7].On the other hand, projection-systems aremuch more complex than other VR systemssuch as head-mounted systems. They integratea variety of technologies that are not hiddenfrom application developers and requireexpertise on how to connect and integratedifferent devices and programmingenvironments, such as viewer-centeredperspective and stereoscopic viewing.Although the concept of viewer-centeredperspective is attractive, head tracking can bea real headache when only one or some of agroup of users are tracked while all othersview the same virtual world, as is the case withCAVE-like systems. The person who istracked must be central to the rest and keephead and body as immobile as possible,otherwise both the angle and the movementcan cause nausea to the others. In the case ofmuseums, the only way to decrease thisproblem is to employ a trained guide whounderstands how to provide the bestexperience for all.Along with the problems caused by thelarger and diverse audience throughput, issuesof high cost and maintenance of VRtechnology, and difficulty in contentdevelopment present important drawbacks forpublic venues. Prohibitive costs of VRtechnologies and concomitant staffdevelopment, operations, and maintenance canfind no place in dwindling museum oreducational budgets overwhelminglydominated by human resource costs. Toovercome the current development cost andlimited accessibility of immersive VR systems,some educational projects are forced to movedevelopment to platforms of broader use,abandoning immersive VR and using lesscostly alternatives instead.On the software side, building interactivevirtual environments involves hundreds ofmegabytes of models, texture-maps, audio-clips and extensive programming skills of theunderlying hardware system. These factorsapply especially in the field of cultural heritage,where computer graphics must be combinedwith exact historical representations andinteractive presentations. VR applications areusually developed using object-orientedlanguages on top of tools such as SiliconGraphics IRIS Performer and OpenGL.Thus the need for highly trained andspecialized engineers in the field of real-time3D graphics programming, virtual reality, andsystem knowledge is apparent. Such aprogramming approach however would havekept away artists and archaeologists frombeing able to do much direct work beyondcreating raw materials (models and sounds).Furthermore the amount of time and effortneeded from the engineers to develop codeand tools from scratch each time would beconsiderable. In many cases a simplerprogramming system is needed. Modeldeploying in 3D space, picking up objects,animations, sounds and navigation of theenvironment are some of the simple actionsthat are usually required. The development ofauthoring environments, such as the XPframework used at FHW [4], help to alleviatesome of these problems by allowing engineersto reuse tools and code between variousapplications and at the same time incorporatenew features. Ideally, with well-designed suchtools, artists or educators can also participatemore actively or even develop entireapplications on their own adjusting the finalvirtual environment to their needs [1][2].As museums show more and more interest invirtual reality, we must continue to see that theinsights gained through experienced use areadequately translated into the design ofenvironments, and both inquisitively andcritically examined. No one yet knows whatwill be successful or how the public willultimately use and interact with these emergingenvironments - the contours are just nowstarting to form and become visible. It is thusimportant to strengthen our efforts andcontinue to accumulate guidelines that will beturned into a useful resource for sounddevelopment and evaluation of interactivetechnologies.References[1] M. Roussou and D. Efraimoglou, "High-end Interactive Media in the Museum",Proceedings of SIGGRAPH '99Computer Graphics Conference, ACMSIGGRAPH, August 1999, pp. 59-62.[2] S. Thomas, and A. Mintz, The Virtual andthe Real: Media in the Museum,American Association of Museums, 1998.[3] F. Niccolucci, "Virtual Reality inArchaeology: a useful tool or a dreadfultoy?", Mediaterra Art & TechnologyFestival 99, Athens, Greece, December1999.[4] M. Roussou, "Immersive InteractiveVirtual Reality and Informal Education",Proceedings of User Interfaces for All:Interactive Learning Environments forChildren, Athens, February 2000.[5] M. Roussou, "Incorporating ImmersiveProjection-based Virtual Reality in PublicSpaces", Proceedings of 3rdInternational Immerse ProjectionTechnology Workshop, Stuttgart,Germany, May 1999, pp.33-39.[6] D. Pape, T. Imai, J. Anstey, M. Roussou,T. DeFanti, "XP: An Authoring System forImmersive Art Exhibitions", Proceedingsof VSMM '98, Gifu Japan, November1998.[7] J. Anstey, D. Pape, D. Sandin, "The ThingGrowing: Autonomous Characters inVirtual Reality Interactive Fiction",Proceedings of IEEE Virtual Reality2000, New Brunswick, NJ, March 2000.[8] F. Fischnaller and Y. Singh, "Multi-MegaBook", Catalogue of ArsElectronica Festival '97, Linz, Austria,September 1997.Author informationMaria Roussou is Head of the Virtual Reality department at the Foundation of the Hellenic World inAthens, Greece, where she is responsible for the development of both infrastructure and content.She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Electronic Visualization from the School of Art andDesign, UIC, a M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Illinoisat Chicago, and a B.Sc. in Applied Informatics from the Athens University of Economics. Since1992, her publications and research have focused on the design and evaluation of virtualenvironments for education, primarily with immersive Virtual Reality systems such as the CAVE.She has also worked on the application of digital media in the representation of cultural informationand collaborated with contemporary art museums such as the Walker Art Center to design andcreate interactive art education material for the Internet. As an artist, she has worked with Muntadasto create the FileRoom project while her other projects and collaborations have been featuredinternationally at the Ars Electronica Center (permanent installation in the CAVE), Art Futura,MediARTech, ISEA97, etc. As a scientist she has published and presented at numerous journalsand venues such as Presence MIT journal, SIGGRAPH, SuperComputing, IEEE VR, ED-MEDIA,AERA, ThinkQuest, AI in Education, etc. Maria recently initiated, an onlineresource for art, technology, and education.


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