NSF grant brings 'Virtual Worlds' to life

May 13, 1999

Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are developing "virtual worlds" that one day could allow planners nationwide to design better cities by "visiting" a computer-generated metropolis or where firefighters could consult "digital buildings" to decide how to battle a blaze.

"We really believe that this system has the potential to revolutionize the way that cities and communities are planned, managed and governed," said William Jepson, the director of computing at UCLA's department of architecture and urban design.

Using a $1.3-million NSF grant, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Richard R. Muntz, the chairman of UCLA's computer science department, have drawn from research in field as diverse as architecture, computer science and psychology to develop three-dimensional computer models for the "Virtual World Data Server." The team has created complex simulations that may eventually lead to new ways to study problems in fields from urban planning to physics and surgery.

The researchers also are tackling the challenges of making the simulations easily available to users worldwide in "real time" over computer networks, without transmission delays that destroy the illusion of inhabiting a computer-generated "reality."

Among the "virtual worlds" the team already has created is a "tour" of a Roman forum. But one of the most visually appealing and practical applications developed so far is a driving tour of downtown Los Angeles in which users travel along digitally created roads, and past computer-generated versions of the city's landmarks. Such a tool could in the future allow planners to weigh options for the design of urban centers in cyberspace.

According to Maria Zemankova, an NSF program officer who oversees the grant, the project tackles some of the thorniest research questions in computer science, including how people interact effectively with computers when using models and how information can be best organized and presented. "This is exciting because it takes an interdisciplinary approach to advancing the underlying computer science," she noted.

But the long-range value of the research may lie in solving some very complex technological, and even psychological problems, that will move virtual worlds out of the laboratory and onto the desktop. "The challenge is to make it affordable and available to the millions to whom it would be valuable," said Muntz.

Currently, limitations on "bandwidth," or the amount of data that can be transmitted over telecommunications networks, curtail the most effective use of such simulations. A high-quality image takes time to transmit from a "server," where it's stored, to a computer screen. A delay of even a few hundredths of a second in the system's response to a command can cause users to become disoriented. One solution to this problem the UCLA team is investigating is to devise a way for any machine to decode "compressed" digital signals sent over a network.

The UCLA Researchers also are trying to find ways to have the computers that store the various components of the virtual worlds work together seamlessly to recreate them on users' screens.
For more information, see: http://mml.cs.ucla.edu/

Editors: B-roll of "Virtual Los Angeles" is available from Dena Headlee at: 703-306-1070/dheadlee@nsf.gov

National Science Foundation
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