It seems like it is nearly every day that we learn about a group using Wonderland in a novel way — and today’s guest blog entry by Chris Harris from VEGA is no exception. In one aspect their work, they control the appearance of a 3D model airplane inside Wonderland by an application that runs externally. Well, I’ll let Chris say more about it…
Guest blog contributed by "A Virtual Academy" principal training designer Chris Harris from VEGA
A Virtual Academy in Wonderland
As a provider of bespoke training solutions, VEGA has a reputation for delivering solutions that save money, improve capability, and transform training. One of the services that we provide at VEGA is the creation of training material, from straightforward PowerPoint slides right through to high fidelity simulations. Our clients are regularly talking about, and experimenting with techniques to deliver this training remotely. While our existing technology already allows remote delivery, there is a lack of classroom atmosphere and instructor-student and student-student relationships can suffer. One way to overcome these problems involves a virtual academy: a meeting place in a virtual world where the training can take place in a collaborative way. (Read about our vision here).
When you’re learning how to fly a satellite or maintain a fighter aircraft, it can be difficult to get your hands on the real thing. The people who operate them tend to be wary about letting some newbie play around with millions of dollars of high-tech hardware. That’s understandable, but it makes training the next generation of scientists or technicians difficult.
Here at VEGA, our solution is to produce a simulation of the equipment instead. This is a computer program that runs on a standard desktop PC. It behaves in the same way as the "real thing" so the learner gains the experience they need in operating controls, following procedures, or diagnosing faults. This approach has many advantages. For a start, a simulation is much less expensive to provide to your students. If you need to do so, you can give each student their own system. You don’t need to try fitting the real equipment in the classroom, and it’s far easier to move a computer down the hall than it is moving a satellite or a gas turbine engine. If the learner does something that breaks the simulated version of the machine, you just start over.
Virtual World and Training Simulation Parallels
When I first started finding out about virtual worlds like Project Wonderland, I saw a lot of parallels with the simulation approach. Each user moves around in a world which behaves in much the same way as the "real thing." People gain experience from their activities in virtual worlds like they do in real life. What happens in a virtual world can be as far-removed or as faithful to reality as it needs to be. Each class can have their own "room" – which can be any environment you can think of. And like simulation, creating and travelling to a virtual world keeps your costs down: you can get your students working together in a virtual classroom, even if they are on different sides of the Atlantic.
If the two approaches had all these things in common, what would it be like if we combined them? VEGA is always looking for ways in which new technology can help our clients. After chatting to my colleagues Darren Harvey and Bernd Hoehner, we started working on a way to link our simulations to objects within a virtual world. We picked Wonderland for a number of reasons – I’d seen Rupert Key talk about the project at Virtual Worlds Europe in London in 2007; it’s open source, which means we could look at the code; and it’s written in Java, which meant our programmers could get to grips with things quickly.
Almost immediately, we were using Wonderland as a venue for virtual meetings between our offices in Bristol and Welwyn Garden City in the UK. Other people in the company noticed, and interest grew quickly.
While the avatar system on Wonderland 0.4 is customisable and easy to use, the results seemed to be too cartoon-like for many of our potential users. We found that a lot of people we showed it to asked if it would be possible to make their avatars look like them. We came up with a simple solution which added a larger head over the top of the Wonderland avatar. We then mapped a specially prepared bitmap on to this object to give us a fairly convincing representation of the real person. I was surprised how important head shape is when you’re trying to make an avatar look convincing. People’s heads come in many different shapes and sizes, and "one size fits all" really isn’t good enough when you’re aiming for a realistic presence in-world. Having said that, the results we came up with in a very short space of time are perfectly recognisable versions of my colleagues. Still, we’re looking forwards to getting our hands on the new avatar system in version 0.5!
If you’re involved in training, you’ve probably come across Learning Management Systems (LMSs). When we set out to build our virtual academy, we initially thought of it as an LMS you can walk around inside. We customised the environment and provided a set of formal classrooms which could be used for training sessions, with an entrance lobby that would help direct students to where they needed to go.
But as we worked with Wonderland, we expanded our approach. We added equipment models to the main hall, and enlarged the collaborative working areas so users could get together to share information and plan activities.
Most importantly, we wanted to see if our simulation technology would fit inside the Wonderland environment. Would it work? Would it be useful?
Virtual Academy Demonstrator in Project Wonderland
In a short time frame, Bernd had imported one of our aircraft models into a classroom in Wonderland and linked it with a basic aircraft simulation running as a separate application on a simulation server at our company headquarters.
A window in Wonderland displays the user interface: an aircraft cockpit and controls. The simulation models the behaviour of a combination of systems including the hydraulics, fuel, avionics, engines and so on. Meanwhile, the aircraft model in Wonderland is passed the current state of various simulation parameters and responds accordingly.
To put this more simply: if you move the landing gear lever in the simulation, the wheels on the Wonderland model will go up or down. Push the stick, and the ailerons move. Kick the pedals, and the rudder responds. It was a great moment seeing this happen in the virtual world we had created, and everyone we showed it to got excited about it too. The next thing I knew, we were demonstrating it at the annual ITEC show in Stockholm, Sweden – and the reaction there was extremely good.
We continue to use Wonderland for meetings, and I’m regularly asked to demonstrate our virtual academy to visitors. Given my experiences so far, I’m convinced there’s a strong future for the technology, and I’m looking forwards to seeing what future releases of the project bring us!
Principal Training Designer