31 December 2009

Teaching Avatars

James Cameron's latest release Avatar has made online virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL) more popular than ever as audiences sit up and take notice of the possibilities of these sites. Users are currently using these sites to socialise and connect using free voice and text chat through personalised avatars or computerised self-representations. However, these sites also hold out the possibility to become places where educators are discovering academic possibilities. SL, for example, provides virtual homes for some of the world's most prestigious universities such as Harvard and Stanford who have bought virtual land with Linden Dollars.

Although this seems to be somewhat of a trend in the West it has yet to catch on in the Middle East. Campus Notes spoke to educators in the UAE to gauge how long it will take before students take their seats in a virtual classroom. Researchers at Zayed University catch on to the possibilities of teaching in virtual reality. Using OpenSimulator, often called OpenSim, they teach students about the basics of 3D concepts and the principles of server building within a virtual world. OpenSim is an open source server platform that hosts virtual worlds and can be accessed by multiple protocols. This means it is free software created for everyone to use.

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29 December 2009

Understanding Interaction in VR

New cinema blockbuster, Avatar, leapt to the top of box office charts as soon as it came out — a stunning 3D realisation of an alien world. Our fascination with themes of escape to other fantastic places and the thrill of immersion in virtual environments also attracts millions to assume new identities in online virtual worlds. Now researchers at The University of Nottingham, SRI International in Silicon Valley California, two Canadian universities — Simon Fraser and York — and online games developer Multiverse are to begin a new three-year international project examining online behaviour in virtual gaming environments.

The Virtual Environment Real User Study (Verus) will explore the relationships between the real-world characteristics of gamers and the individual activities and group dynamics of their avatars in online virtual worlds. Investigating how individuals interact within online environments will have many benefits. Researchers will interview and track the volunteers as they play online in virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, as well as in other virtual environments that have been specially designed for the project.

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27 December 2009

Real-Time Virtual Worlds

A new digital system developed at the University of Illinois, allows people in different locations to interact in real time in a shared virtual space. The tele-immersive environment captures, transmits, and displays three-dimensional movement in real time. Unlike the virtual reality people see in video games or in digitally animated films, these virtual environments record real-time actions. It’s a virtual environment that is the product of real-time imaging, not the result of programming 3D CAD models.

Nobody has to be supplied with equipment to enable imaging and 3-D reconstruction. The only thing you might have is some kind of controller, like a Wii controller, so you can change the view angle of the data you see. Clusters of visible and thermal spectrum digital cameras and large LCD displays surround a defined space. Information is extracted from the digital images, rendered in 3-D in a virtual space, and transmitted via the Internet to the separate geographic sites. Participants at each site can see their own digital clones and their counterparts at the other sites on the LCD screens and can move their bodies in respond to the images on the screen.

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20 December 2009

Pompeii in Second Life

The virtual villa is a recreation of the Pompeian Court, a life-size replica of a house in Pompeii which was built inside the Crystal Palace. In 1936, a huge fire destroyed the Palace which had been a feature on the south London landscape since 1854. Lost with the massive iron and glass superstructure were the displays inside, in particular a series of Fine Arts courts which used reconstruction to show the artistic and architectural achievements of past epochs, from Egypt to the Renaissance.

Amongst them was the Pompeian Court, a life-size replica decorated with paintings traced from the wall frescoes uncovered in the city’s ruins. The virtual model of the Court, brings together a digitised collection of the paintings displayed in the Court as well as an archive of the guidebooks and press reviews which described it. Visitors can explore the house alone, join guided tours, meet other visitors, take part in learning activities, or even interact with virtual Victorian and Pompeian inhabitants.

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19 December 2009

PlayStation 3: Crunching Numbers

When it comes to high-performance computing, Sony's PlayStation 3 is not all fun and games. Four years after Sony unveiled its gaming console to the world, some researchers and federal agencies are using PS3s for serious work. For the last year, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Va., has used a bank of 40 interconnected PS3 consoles to decrypt passwords. It's working to add 40 more units. Through Stanford University's Folding@home project, almost 40,000 PS3s volunteered by their owners during idle time currently contribute to the study of protein folding. More than 880,000 PS3 consoles have participated in the project, researchers said. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., uses a cluster of 336 PS3s for research on urban surveillance and large image processing. Last month, the lab ordered 2,200 more units. Since the PS3's unveiling in 2005, the console has been touted not only for its amped-up gaming capabilities but also for its ability to generate complex real-time graphics and calculations thanks to its ground-breaking Cell processor, created by IBM in collaboration with Sony and Toshiba. What particularly caught the attention of researchers was the PS3's ability to have the Linux operating system installed on it - which allows the gaming console to be transformed into a powerful home computer. That opened the door for researchers to use the PS3's power for projects and experiments that required high-performance computing.

The Cell processor, researchers said, is perfect for applications that need a heavy amount of number-crunching and can vastly outperform traditional CPUs. The processor, for example, can do 100 billion operations per second while a typical CPU can only run 5 billion. The PlayStation 3's Cell processor allows video games to simulate physical reality. You can have a character with clothing and the clothing will flap in the wind. It turned out that with a certain amount of work, it was possible to run scientific applications in the processor. The real performance edge of the PS3 shows off when the computing power of several consoles is joined together. While early experiments tried clustering several consoles, Stanford's Folding@home project was among the first to try something more ambitious. Since 1999, FAH has studied the way proteins fold and misfold in an effort to better understand diseases like Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's. Because running simulations requires staggering amounts of computing power, the FAH team appeals to computer owners across the globe to help by leaving their computers on to perform calculations and simulations when they're not using them. The combined computing power coming from the network of volunteers was modest until FAH and Sony developed an application that would allow PS3 owners to contribute their idle consoles to the project.

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16 December 2009

BCI and Gaming Workshop

On Wednesday 13th January 2010, Serious Games Institute (SGI) is organising another workshop with title ‘Brain Computer Interface in Gaming’. The workshop is focused on graduates that want to work on the games industry. Attendees will find out how instances of bio-feedback and brain computer interface devices can be used in educational and health contexts.

Speakers for the Brain Computer Interface in Gaming session will include Prof. Sara de Freitas (SGI), Simon Bennett (Roll 7), Ian Glasscock (Games for Life), Prof. Kevin Warwick (Reading University) and Prof Pamela Kato (University Medical Center, Utrecht, Holland).

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08 December 2009

Defence Security With Virtual Worlds

Advances in computerized modeling and prediction of group behavior, together with improvements in video game graphics, are making possible virtual worlds in which defense analysts can explore and predict results of many different possible military and policy actions, say computer science researchers at the University of Maryland in a commentary published in the November 27 issue of the journal Science. Defense analysts can understand the repercussions of their proposed recommendations for policy options or military actions by interacting with a virtual world environment. They can propose a policy option and walk skeptical commanders through a virtual world where the commander can literally 'see' how things might play out. This process gives the commander a view of the most likely strengths and weaknesses of any particular course of action. Computer scientists now know pretty much how to do this, and have created a ‘pretty good chunk’ of the computing theory and software required to build a virtual Afghanistan, Pakistan or another ‘world’.

Human analysts, with their real world knowledge and experience, will be essential partners in taking us the rest of the way in building these digital worlds and, then, in using them to predict courses of action most likely to build peace and security in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Researchers at the University of Maryland have developed a number of the computing pieces critical to building virtual worlds. These include stochastic opponent modeling agents (SOMA) -- artificial intelligence software that uses data about past behavior of groups in order to create rules about the probability of that group various actions in different situations; ‘cultural islands’, which provide a virtual world representation of a real-world environment or terrain, populated with characters from that part of the world who behave in accordance with a behavioral model; and forecasting ‘engines’ CONVEX and CAPE, which focus on predicting behavioral changes in groups based on validated on historical data.

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06 December 2009

Editable 3D Mash-Up Maps

Armchair explorers who soar over 3D cityscapes on their computer may be used to the idea of maps with an extra dimension. But they are now getting accurate enough to offer much more than a preview of your next holiday destination. Accurate, large-scale 3D maps could soon change the way we design, manage and relate to our urban environments. As part of a project at the Ordnance Survey (OS), the UK government's mapping agency, to demonstrate the potential of 3D mapping, the coastal resort of Bournemouth in southern England has probably become the best-mapped place on the planet. Lasers were fired at the town from the ground and from the air to capture the height of buildings, trees and other features, using a technique called Lidar. Adding information from aerial photos and traditional surveys produced a full-colour 3D map, built up from more than 700 million points. The map is accurate to 4 centimetres in x, y and z - by comparison 3D structures in Google Earth are accurate to about 15 metres. OS is not the only organisation to be exploiting improvements in the hardware and software needed to capture and model cities in 3D. Detailed digital 2D maps, like those the OS maintains of the UK, already underpin the everyday activities of businesses and governments the world over.

They are annotated and overlaid with everything from the layout of electric cables to data on air pollution. Companies are now building large-scale 3D maps to be used in the same way. Now it's not just buildings, but floors within the building that could be annotated. The new generation of maps can capture details like mailboxes and lamp posts too small to appear in existing city-scale virtual maps. Infoterra, a firm based in Leicester, UK, supplied 3D data used in Google Earth, and will launch its own 3D city-mapping service, Skape in January 2010. It also uses Lidar to capture the heights of buildings and other features, and uses aerial images taken from a low angle to provide surface detail at a spatial resolution as low as 4.5 centimetres. Competition between Google Earth and Microsoft's Virtual Earth to wow home users with 3D maps is partly responsible for the maturing of large-area 3D maps. But even as this technology goes pro, consumers may still have a role to play. Google's newly launched Building Maker allows any web user to translate an aerial photo in Google Earth into a 3D building. The results are less accurate than a Lidar-based map. But flying planes to get laser data is not cheap, so crowd-sourcing may be necessary outside commercial and urban areas. Future maps may still need help from enthusiasts more interested in eye candy than urban planning.

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