michael naimark




VSMM 98, Gifu

Michael Naimark


(For more info, see www.vsmm.org )

Last weekVSMM 98, the Fourth International Conference on Virtual Systems and Multimedia, was held in Gifu, Japan. Over 100 papers were presented. Many were on the usual topics - object modeling, rendering and CAD, CAVES and display technologies, gesture and human communication, speech and NLP, and MPEG 7. But this year there was a new twist: VSMM was co-organized with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The conference was subtitled "Future Fusion: Application Realities for the Virtual Age," with emphasis in the areas of real-world modeling, restoration, and preservation. So in addition to papers coming from North America, Japan, and Europe, such places as China, Nepal, Brazil, Australia, and Macedonia were also represented with papers on "virtual world heritage."

The conference was chaired by Takeo Kanade from CMU and had its share of VR well-knowns. The papers, published in advance, were mercifully short, most less than five pages. As such, VSMM 98 provided a good snapshot of the state of VR today. (I gave an invited paper entitled "Field Cinematography Techniques for Virtual Reality Applications.")

Gifu Update

Gifu Prefecture, located between Osaka and Kyoto, is the most VR-crazy place in the world. Several years ago its governor, after hearing Al Gore talk about the information super-highway, decided to transform his region, known for rice fields, cormorant fishing, and automobile parts, into a high-tech zone specializing in VR and multimedia. The Prefecture government sponsored a $350 million high-rise production facility called Softopia, a new media arts college (IAMAS), and several local university programs. The government plans to spend over $1 billion in the next five years.

The most recent new institution is the "VR Techno Plaza," monumental is size and part museum, part research lab, and part high-tech business incubator. Among many highlights, it boasts the world's first public six-sided CAVE (designed by Michitaka Hirose of University of Tokyo). The opening ceremonies took place last Friday to coincide with VSMM. By the looks of everything in Gifu, one would believe VR is really, really real.

VR - the Verb

In what appeared to be spontaneous emergence, the word "virtualize" was prevalent in many conference papers. "To virtualize" means to make computer models of existing (or formerly existing) places. This is a significant change from classic VR rhetoric, which was dominated by imaginary and fantasy worlds.

One reason is lasers, or "lidars" (light radars, as Kanade calls them): time-of-flight laser rangefinding capable (depending on who's talking) of scanning thousands of points per second, at distances of hundreds of meters, with accuracies in the millimeter range. Orinda, California-based, Cyra Corporation introduced their Cyrax system last year, followed by several other commercially available systems from several countries. Kanade introduced his version: a spinning mirror system capable of scanning 360 x 60 degrees.

Another reason for "virtualized" reality is recent progress in computer vision. Several papers were given on a image-based rendering, including one on the current state of Kanade's 51 camera dome, one on automatic generation of 3D models from photographs by Belgium-based Marc Pollefeys at ESAT, a paper authored by 13 researchers from 5 European countries (led by Joao Pereira from Lisbon) on virtual environments creation using an autonomous robot (a laser/computer vision hybrid approach), and one on Hirose's 8 camera mobile van system (which tiles then morphs the imagery for seamless 3-screen interactive projection).

Heritage is Hot

So it may come as no surprise that researchers are looking for interesting and valuable content for virtualizing, and as such places of cultural and natural heritage have suddenly become in vogue. Papers described computer models being made of castles in Spain and Japan; of abbeys in Italy, villes in Quebec, and villages in Nepal; of Roman baths, Egyptian tombs, and Aboriginal caves; and a virtual drive-through of the endangered Florida everglades. Minja Yang from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre says they are now getting requests daily for their official endorsement of projects.

"Virtual restoration" is also big. An Italian group is using archeological evidence for color restoration of murals in Florence, while a Chinese effort is underway to restore the faded murals of Mogao Grotto in northwest China. Three-dimensional restoration (like Marc Levoy's Roman wall-map puzzle) is underway in Xian, China, home of the thousands of (mostly broken) terra cotta horses built during the Qin Dynasty.

A similar but dicier topic is "digital repatriation," putting back together pieces currently residing in different locations. For example, a digital recreation of King Tutankhamun's tomb was made in conjunction with the IMAX movie "Mysteries of Egypt" which premiered last spring. The 3D model, coordinated by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, integrated survey pictures, colors photographs, and a 3D scan of the funeral mask - all from different institutions. Given that many cultural artifacts are in the collections of foreign museums (e.g., practically everything in the British Museum), digital repatriation is viewed by some as a politically correct solution to appropriation.

As-Was or As-Is?

There was much discussion about accuracy in representation. Should computer models represent idealized versions, cleaned up for virtual tourists? Should host countries create virtual facades? Is it important to show the current state of things, even if it may appear unpleasant? Or derogatory? These were questions of most importance to UNESCO, and such issues surfaced regularly throughout the conference.

But the desire to find solutions appeared high. The UNESCO "brand" is viewed as gold by almost every country and can bring funding and visibility to projects. (The US is an exception: President Reagan pulled us out of UNESCO in 1984.) UNESCO, as a branch of the United Nations ("U N Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization") has no rivals. And Minja Yang whispered to me that they would like to make money too.