Virtual campus makes the invisible virtually visible

Rob Harvie wants to make taking a stroll through the University of Toronto campus akin to taking a trip through Alice’s Wonderland.

The visualization consultant is part of U of T’s virtual campus project, which is trying to transport the Toronto university to the realm of virtual reality. Along with a visual representation of the buildings and terrain, Harvie hopes that the virtual campus will open student and staff eyes to the unseen. By incorporating a slew of data from various disciplines, Harvie wants visitors to be able to strip back walls to see the wiring behind them, shoot up into space and zoom back down to the campus, and look at traffic patterns.

“It’s making the invisible visible,” said Harvie, who works at the Centre for Academic and Adaptive Technology at U of T.

Once the technology becomes more wieldy, students will be able to access the virtual campus through wireless PDAs, look up a book, find out which library it’s in and receive instructions on how to get there. The technology could also be context aware, and provide an appropriate route for someone with physical disabilities, Harvie said.

“This is a realm of possibilities, whereas a map is just one snapshot from one perspective in time. You can actually look at [the virtual campus] from a bird’s eye looking down, but then you can say show me buildings that are above a certain height, the things that are of interest to me. Or you can say, show me what this looked like 25 years ago, 100 years ago.”

The VR technology can have many potential applications, Harvie said.

With the technology, engineers can shrink down to size, just as Alice did, in order to travel through an engine or a fuselage that hasn’t been built yet.

“I think that this is a great tool for noticing things. It’s a good tool for new questions almost forming themselves. We can look at things from a different perspective, and that’s problem solving. Even though this is a figure of speech, often it’s also a mental technique for understanding that you’re asking the wrong questions in the first place.”

The power of the technology is that it helps people visualize what they can’t see, agreed Mark Lindquist, an MA student in the Landscape Architecture program at U of T who is also working on the virtual campus project. He’s seen people who’ve looked at designs without understanding what they were actually looking at until they saw a virtual representation for building.

Some buildings that were potentially going to be constructed at Toronto’s lakeshore were actually going to be in the flight path for the Toronto Island Airport, but no one was able to see this until they looked at the plans in virtual reality, Harvie said.

“So, I think it’s the invisible aspects that are very powerful,” Lindquist said.

As an architect, he can use the technology to do sun and shadow studies to see if proposed buildings would be too obstructive. In the future, the technology could also be used for studying wind patterns.

Haptic devices, which allow people to experience tactile sensation, can also be incorporated into virtual reality creations such as the campus, Harvie said. Through a stylus-like device, users would, for instance, be able to feel the surfaces of various buildings.

The technology could also bring avatars, a graphical representation of a real person, into play.

“In many virtual environments, there’s nobody else there. You can travel through the Louvre, but it looks like you’re travelling at one o’clock in the morning when nobody’s around. One of the recent developments over the last couple of years has been worlds in which you’re sharing the environment with other people, and your presence is actually known visually. You have an avatar for a virtual representation inside of the space and you can actually interact with people inside the environment. You can actually talk to them if you’ve got a microphone and speakers, or you can text chat back and fourth,” Harvie said.

“It gives the others a sense of you being there and of actually addressing someone,” he said, although he acknowledges that most of the nuances of face-to-face interaction are lost.

Harvie also admits that VR technology has not caught on yet.

“Like a lot of technology, it hasn’t been easy enough to use.” Though he said he doesn’t know how to create an environment that’s worth using, he’s going to try to make the virtual campus easy to use.

“It should be fast and it should be usable and I shouldn’t have to read a readme file.”

The campus model is being built with AutoCAD technology and digital photography and is run on a Silicon Graphics Onyx2 workstation. Harvie hopes that in a year’s time students will be able to take a trip to the virtual campus using only a PC.