The Future of Real Virtuality

How do you represent the real world in a digital environment? Given the power of smell to evoke memory, how do we incorporate that into a virtual space? And what’s the best way to create a virtual model? Professor Alan Chalmers[1. Alan Chalmers is a Professor of Visualisation at the International Digital Laboratory, WMG, University of Warwick. He has published over 190 papers in journals and international conferences on high-fidelity graphics, multi-sensory perception, HDR imaging, virtual archaeology and parallel rendering. His research goal is ‘Real Virtuality’: obtaining physically-based, multi-sensory, realistic virtual environments at interactive rates.], International Digital Laboratory, WMG, explored some of these ideas in his recent talk at Virtual Futures. A podcast of Professor Chalmers’ talk is now available below.

Alan Chalmers is a Professor of Visualisation at the International Digital Laboratory, WMG, where he explores the science of perception, and how real-life experiences can be mimicked through technology and delivered to the user at interactive rates (‘Real Virtuality’). While we might think a photograph will record a time and a place, he says, the end result is always lacking: ‘We are multi-sensual beings; we don’t just see the world through our eyes.’

Indeed, anyone lucky enough to have eaten at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, The Fat Duck, where oysters are served while an iPod plays you the sound of the sea, can attest that technology is capable of magically replicating the interplay of the senses. ‘When you’re trying to create these virtual realities, you can’t ignore any sense because they all have a major effect,’ says the Professor.

Perception is a complex business, not least when the technologies you’re using work in different ways to the body. Take vision, for example. Our eyes adapt to sudden changes in light, such as when we walk out of bright sunlight into a shadowy church, but the fact is, the real world is a lot brighter and a lot darker than we can typically represent with a camera.

One of the key research areas in Real Virtuality, the Professor explains, is high dynamic range (HDR). Currently the aim with HDR is to capture all of the information – from the brightest highlights to the detail in the darkest shadows – and combine it all in a single image. There are many useful applications for HDR technology, including medical imaging, where the combination of bright lights and dark body cavities make the subject impossible to capture properly with a camera.

‘The other interesting thing with high dynamic range is that it gives you depth perception,’ he says. Whereas 3D is a technology that has never fully taken off, HDR mimics the way we see much more effectively; ‘in the real world, beyond a certain distance, we don’t use our two eyes, we use other cues, one of which is light’ the Professor adds.

The other interesting thing with high dynamic range is that it gives you depth perception...

Sound is, of course, equally important; Professor Chalmers discusses a technique called impulse response, where the acoustic qualities of a location can be recorded. You can then apply another sound (a soprano singing, for example) and apply it to 3D space, whether that’s a cathedral or a shower. There are methods, too, of isolating the chemical composition of certain smells and reproducing them synthetically. And taste, adds the Professor, is actually 80 per cent smell – as evidenced by whisky-tasters, who learn to identify whiskies entirely by smell.

So what are the challenges? ‘3D graphics real-time, 3D audio and smell I’d say are pretty much solved problems… there are lots of other issues that need to be dealt with [such as] touching, taste and the delivery system.’ The area of Internet selling could be improved by Real Virtuality too, he says. Many products bought online are sent back, because the customer’s perception of the product wasn’t good enough in the first place. Face-to-face meetings are another area that could benefit: ‘If we can get that right, then we can avoid the need to fly from New York to London for that one-hour business meeting, with all that air-travel and all those expenses resources which it involves. If you can get the level of intimacy right you could get that same experience virtually as you have in reality,’ the Professor says.


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

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Photography by Andy Miah