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Section 2: Virtual Reality: History, Philosophy and Theory#

2.6 Theoretical considerations for the development of virtual reality projects#

The previous sections have outlined the technical aspects of VR, and described some of the application areas in which the technology has been successful. This section looks at the reasoning behind VR development: those areas that must be considered by any developer of a VR project. These considerations can be divided into two issues: one relating to the need for appropriate level and style of content; and the other relating to the need to use the right software and delivery mechanisms. In essence, it is imperative that a developer considers both the information and the technology in any IT-based project. Both of these issues have a common thread, in that identifying the appropriate constituents of either requires an understanding of the intended user.

2.6.1 Data to information

The key to the successful delivery of any VR model is that it addresses not only the needs of the developer, but also truly matches the needs or desires of the user who will be at its receiving end. This may seem obvious, but it is remarkably easy to become embroiled with the 'back-end' of a development; to be side-tracked by technological issues or shrouded by personal beliefs and developer-centred perspectives. This can be avoided by conducting a formal analysis of user requirements or, if the project is of a smaller scale, at the very least initiating some concerted research or debate. What all computer-based systems are ultimately trying to achieve is to impart, to varying degrees, a level of information to a user. Virtual reality aims to take a collection of otherwise unintelligible data (points, facets etc.) and present it on screen in a way that the user can interpret it, in keeping with the developer's hopes or intentions. This is true whether the information is a representation of complex numerical data aimed at scientists, or a moving abstract image intended to stimulate a subjective, personal response. For the imparted information to achieve its desired goal, understanding by the user is imperative. The process of turning data into information is illustrated in Figure 1.

The information process

Figure 1: The simplified information process

VR images, like any other graphical illustrations, are merely vehicles for elucidating, or clarifying, information to the user. It is clarification, not realism or accuracy, that is at the centre of any illustration, and it is critical to consider this when new technologies or methods, for illustration of any kind, are being developed. The main goal of an illustration must be to fulfil the needs of its intended user; to clarify the information in a manner, and at a level of abstraction, appropriate to the intended audience.

2.6.2 Graphical information

Interpretation of data to provide information will always raise subjective issues. The very notion that information should be placed into a context that is 'appropriate' for a user confirms that different people will tend to interpret the same thing in different ways. This point of view is particularly important when dealing with images: everybody knows that a picture paints a thousand words; the problem is that they can often be a different thousand words for each viewer! Computer graphics, and VR in particular, convey a substantial quantity of information to the viewer, and obviously can be a very powerful component of any modern computer-based system.

There are drawbacks as well as advantages. The plus side is fairly obvious in its nature, but quite surprising in its potency: many people are impressed by flashy, animated computer graphics. As Brooks advocates, graphics relate much more directly to the way humans naturally interpret and communicate information (Brooks 1996), and this affects the way people respond to a highly graphical product. This is very useful for improving end-user perception, because if the user finds interacting with the system a pleasurable, or fun, experience, then navigation and information-gathering are more likely to be successful. The perceived impressiveness of naturally interactive and visually stimulating graphics can win over all but the most hardened heart.

VR modelling, with full three-dimensionality, extensive animation, and elaborate fly-throughs can provide something of a cost problem in terms of both time and money and also in terms of download times and user-system requirements. These are issues that any such development must face. However, it is the user requirements against which these risks should be assessed, even when trying to resolve problems relating to the technology.

2.6.3 Technology for informing

Often, much of the time and money cost of a VR-based product or system can be attributed to the technology, yet the solution to cost-cutting (of time, money and effort) is invariably found in the manipulation of the inherent information. It is too easy to become embroiled in the belief that the only way to solve a computer-related problem is to have the latest in software, hardware or expertise. This approach can be likened to the idea that a book can only have value if it is printed using the most sophisticated techniques, in the smartest fonts and on the most expensive paper. What is important is that the product reaches its intended end-user. Many potential users of VR models will not have access to the same hardware and software as the developer.

The artificial worlds that people experience in VR are all created by a developer, designer or artist through the manipulation of data and information which is then represented on screen. VR developers can be lured by the impressive capabilities of modern graphics software and hardware (the stunning results of which can be seen in films such as Jurassic Park) into the belief that 'reality' should be gauged by closeness of the model, in appearance and movement, to its real-world counterpart. However, VR is essentially a graphics medium and it should be remembered that good illustration, or graphics, or art, depends not on how 'realistic' an image is, but on how successfully it conveys its intended message. For example, an entire city can be abstracted down to the level of a black dot on a map. This is sufficient detail for a map of the world but useless for someone requiring a town street-guide. Suitable abstraction of this kind is a necessity because, as Miller and Richards point out, it would be impractical for a map to show all the data (Miller and Richards 1995). Not only impractical, but very expensive.

Another important element to be considered is the mechanism for delivering the VR to the end-user, i.e. the software and hardware that users will require. Understanding the technical limitations of the model's intended users will be part of the formal analysis of user requirements (see 2.6.1 above) if it is being designed with users in mind. There is no point in developing a VR product if the intended users will never see it! Where the project involves delivery via on-site monitors this is less of an issue, as the developer has full control over the delivery mechanisms. However, where the project involves delivery via the Internet, developers do not have this advantage. Most VR products, including even the simpler QTVR type images, require users to download and install a plug-in to view the model. It is tempting, as a developer, to believe that this will not be a problem for users and that most will not begrudge the time and trouble involved.

There is more to it than that. Most importantly, users do not know that the VR will provide delights and may well not be prepared to expend too much energy to find out. Many links on the Internet make promises that are not fulfilled. Furthermore, the model itself will also need to be downloaded, the plug-in may not be compatible with the browser version or the operating system that are in use and the graphics capabilities or settings of the user's PC may render the image incorrectly or not at all.

These problems are not insurmountable, providing enough research is done initially to find out who is likely to use the VR. With research, it is possible to ensure that the VR's technical requirements conform to capabilities of 'standard' users, even if it is not totally inclusive. Understanding and consideration of the user is the key to any successful project delivery.

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