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Pere Brunet on Virtual Reality
by Juan C. DĂĽrsteler [message nş 82]

Pere Brunet, director of the Centre de Realitat Virtual of Barcelona opens up for us an amazing window onto the present and future world of virtual reality.
Pere Brunet Crosa  Director of the "Centre de Realitat Virtual de Barcelona"

Courtesy of Pere Brunet

Pere Brunet Crosa  is Professor of Computer Science at the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya, of which he was Vicerector of Research from 1988 to 1992. He is one of the pioneers of Virtual Reality in Europe. InfoVis.net had the opportunity to interview him. Here is the outcome:

Infovis.net: What is the CRV and what does it offer to companies and potential users? 

Pere Brunet: 

The Centre de Realitat Virtual of Barcelona is a centre that was formed through an agreement between the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya and Gedas Iberia. Gedas Iberia is one of the companies in the Volkswagen group. The agreement was signed in June 1999 and stated that the inicial investment would be made in equal parts and that the centre would look for support from the local administration, something that was finally achieved in order to help set up the centre. 

I believe that it has been a good example of symbiosis. The University has been able to make use of some of the most innovative equipment available. In fact it is the only equipment of its kind in the south of Germany. In Latin countries there is none except in Greece where they have one in a museum, but it is not for technical use. 

For the University it is a first rate Research resource. The agreement specified that the usage time would be split into equal halves for both parts. For the company Gedas, the advantage, is that it is near to both the know-how and human potential of the University. In fact, a lot of the people on the payroll of Gedas in this centre are ex-students of the University. 

The centre works in two areas: Commercial development, of which Gedas is in charge, mainly because they are the ones that really know about the commercial development of the centre, and secondly the area of Research Projects which is the part the University is responsible for. 

The centre has a CAVE system, the most immersive Virtual Reality system available today (see the past issue). It is a room of 3x3x3m that offers implicit interaction. There is also a presentation room, just where we are now, which is like a cinema except that the presentation of 3D models is in stereoscopic vision, and we are also making low cost virtual reality systems. 

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Modelisation of the Spanish city of  Cádiz during the XVIII century from the digitization of a physical model.

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Courtesy of Pere Brunet/CRV

The services that this centre offers to the general public are, on one hand, consulting on Virtual Reality projects specific to VR, currently one of the star projects is a virtual model of the city of Cádiz in the XVIII century for the Cádiz town hall for public display. 

There is also training; from this coming September there will be a Postgraduate course together with Gedas about virtual reality and finally we have a series of projects on collaborative design, and specific services for companies. The fields that we work in are industrial design, architecture and medicine.

In the field of industrial design VR allows you to inspect a model, without having to resort to a physical prototype in the first stages of the design. Normally the design ends up in a real prototype in order to be able to carry out an analysis of the requirements together with the customer, look at possible changes in the design, etc. 

However, the virtual prototype lets you inspect the design sufficiently realistically to be able to delay the production of the physical prototype.The physical prototype isn’t eliminated completely, it just isn’t needed so early on in the design cycle.

For a petrochemical or chemical company, for example, this idea could be interesting for them in terms of designing petrochemical plants. In fact we are currently working on the naval design of large petrol tankers and the problems between the two aren’t very different as they both involve lots of pipes and complex equipment, so you can use co-operative design in this case.

In these sessions the model is inspected by three different groups of people, the customer who is interested in having first contact with the model and giving his/her opinion, the designer and finally the person in charge of production.

These three groups of people can be immersed in the model and can discuss the problems with it, its redesign, etc. and all of this can be produced using the model made by CAD, without building a single piece. This is where the interest lies.

InfoVis.net: How do you see the future of virtual and augmented reality in both the industrial or business world as well as the day to day life of the people.

Pere Brunet: 

In my opinion there are three worlds: the day to day, the industrial and the medical, this one being a world that is somewhere between the day to day and the industrial one. I believe that it’s all to do with simplifying the virtual reality technology, in order to bring it much closer to the people.

At this moment the technology of virtual reality is emerging and the systems are still difficult to use. You could “squeeze” more out of it if the technology was much more portable.

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VR Table. Low cost system under development at the Centre de Realitat Virtual de Barcelona.

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Courtesy of Pere Brunet/CRV

One example of portability is the low cost systems, such as virtual reality tables of which we are developing one here, that are systems based in the PC and that can easily be in small companies, architects’ offices, in doctors’ surgeries, etc, and allow the immersive inspection of the model. Over the next 3-5 years there will be a proliferation of these systems. The usefulness that they have to offer and the reduction in cost in all of the design process will make these systems very interesting for the industry.

For medicine, it is virtually the same. Although the field is much “greener” because the industry already works with CAD design and what these systems bring is just the immersive experience. 

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Preparation of a surgical intervention in the jawbone.

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Courtesy of Pere Brunet/CRV

They use though very few 3D models in medicine. There are however huge possibilities in terms of training, diagnosis and clinical sessions. What we call in the industry “co-operative design”, in medicine would be called co-operative clinical sessions. Instead of a variety of doctors looking at an X-ray, what they will be looking at is a 3D model of the organ of the patient. I believe that this technology will spread over the next 2 years, it’s something immediate. 

The use of virtual reality on a large scale needs more time, say 4 or 5 years, for the systems to be more portable and it is here that augmented reality comes into play. I think that virtual reality will make a huge leap forward when we move from the current systems that basically project images somewhere where we can see them with realism thanks to the special glasses, to the glasses that will give us the images directly.

This leads us to the intermediary field which is augmented reality, where the glasses allow us to see reality but they enhance it with a virtual experience and which allow us to walk in the street, etc. This is where the current limitation is because the systems still aren’t portable enough.

The big IT problem, as you well know, is that it is impossible to make predictions. As IT people we are the first ones to be surprised at how things have evolved and we are reliant on the new hardware that is coming onto the market. But I believe that within the next 5 years this has to be in widespread use definitely, with many applications already, not only industrial ones but also as personal guides, while you you go for a walk or you are in a museum, or as help for people with impaired vision to increase their visual capacity.

InfoVis.net: When will we see this at home?

Pere Brunet: 

There is one area that I haven’t mentioned and that is leisure and games. I find it difficult to think about virtual reality applications that are not games. However there is one element for domestic use and that is education and/or learning, and this means for children too. What we could call virtual laboratories and the encyclopedias with virtual reality elements. For example when you want to know what a “spinning top” is, you’ll click on the word spinning top and you’ll see a top spinning in 3D front of you and you’ll understand how the spinning top works.

There is a very important element here, because I am somewhere between geometry and Information Technology and I think that unfortunately our learning is in 2D and not 3D. We live in a 3-dimensional world which is however, full of 2-dimensional experiences, books are 2-dimensional, the cinema is 2-dimensional, newspapers are 2-dimensional and when we walk in the street nobody lifts up their head, everyone just looks where they are going and you only see a 2-dimensional slice of what is around you. It’s a real shame. 

That’s why I believe that VR allows you, from a very early age, to develop this skill of 3D representation that I think we haven’t developed enough, and this has to lead to a series of educative possibilities, capabilities, and new professions that we can’t even imagine. In this sense, I think that countries that have these elements, on a large scale I mean, not only for the élite, can really contribute to a stronger development through the education of children and young people.

In the same way that the current education system isn’t the same as 20 years ago and it is now based on audiovisual media, I think that the next step for multimedia and audiovisual is 3D and this is what leads us to virtual reality.

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