Dr. Larry Hatch and student Eric Gang (seated) work on a new virtual reality project called “The Alamo: A Pocket Virtual World.”

Dr. Larry Hatch and student Eric Gang (seated) work on a new virtual reality project called “The Alamo: A Pocket Virtual World.”

BGSU digital media devotees taking 'virtual worlds' to Europe

Travelers from BGSU will be taking a lot of pictures during a study abroad experience in Europe over the next year. But many of the photos won’t go into albums as mere mementos, but will be used instead to help take other people where they might not otherwise be able to go.

Hatch and his students will work at the University of Applied Sciences, in Puch, Austria.

It’s all courtesy of a technology, Pocket Virtual Worlds, that allows for navigation of virtual environments not while sitting at a computer but while actually walking around and exploring them. Photos create panoramas in which people can navigate by using a personal digital assistant (PDA).

The technology’s co-developer is Dr. Larry Hatch, chair of visual communication and technology education. Hatch and four of the undergraduate and graduate students in his Digital Media Research Group leave July 18 for a European stay based in Salzburg, Austria. There, they will work with peers at the University of Applied Sciences ("Fachhochschule").

Hatch, who first visited Salzburg as a high school student in 1970, returned for three days as part of an international delegation at the university’s opening about 18 months ago. When the institution subsequently sought exchange possibilities, the BGSU professor thought it would be a good place for his students to interact with international colleagues, sharing complementary research.

That research includes Pocket Virtual Worlds and, as Hatch pointed out, Europe offers "all sorts of things to photograph and put in this technology." Its premise is this: If a panorama represents a single point in space, then an array of panoramas is a virtual world. In the photographic environment, navigation mode allows users to walk on a map that, like a Global Positioning System (GPS), moves under the person to provide a real-world connection and physical sense of scale. At key areas of the map, the system switches to panorama mode, allowing a 360-degree view, and unlike GPS, it works indoors or outdoors.

"Every time you take a step, you see a world from a different perspective," said Hatch, explaining that a pocket navigator worn on the hip uses Bluetooth and location-aware technology. The navigator provides directional and distance information directly to the PDA, transforming body movement into a giant game controller that navigates the world automatically.

Then there’s the benefit of getting kids moving away from their computer monitors, he added, citing the educational possibilities. The system can make visits to museums more interactive and take youngsters directly to places possibly otherwise out of reach, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Alamo. Hatch and his co-developer, Jared Bendis of Case Western Reserve University, have already taken about 230 panoramic photos at the Alamo to create a working prototype for the Pocket Virtual Worlds system.

The technology will also be expanded into a Pocket Mobile Gaming system that, in the gaming mode, Hatch said, can help children learn colors and shapes, sign language or another spoken language.

The "Pocket" products could work just as easily on smaller, portable gaming systems made by Nintendo and others, he noted, saying they probably won’t be on PDAs eventually. But the developers needed to get them working on another format first, he continued, and the work of two members of the Digital Media Research Group was invaluable in making that happen.

Computer science students Alex Mach, a junior, and Craig Brown, a graduate student, did the math to devise a linear rectified image for a PDA—a way to wrap an image around a cylinder without distortion. "It was a great mathematical challenge for them to figure out how to do this on a PDA," Hatch said.

Student opportunity
Traveling to Austria with Hatch will be Mach; his Centerville High School classmate Eric Gang, a visual communication technology (VCT) major; senior Brian King, a VCT and marketing major from Elyria, and first-year graduate student Jason Mellen of Palm Bay, Fla., who is in the master's degree program in technology education.

While some of the classes they are taking at the Salzburg university will be taught in English, several of the travelers have also taken a class in German to help prepare for the trip.

"The opportunity for me to travel overseas to study with students from another walk of life, on a project that I am passionate about, is something I never thought would happen to me," Gang said.

The research group members come from various majors, including education, art and math in addition to VCT and computer science. Working alongside his brightest peers both within VCT and outside the field "is nothing short of a dream come true," said Gang, who also called Pocket Virtual Worlds "the beginning of a new and innovative way to invoke learning."

The BGSU junior and Hatch agreed that the diversity within the research group is needed. Using resources from various disciplines is what makes the group "a groundbreaking entity in the institutional research community," according to Gang.

Hatch recruited many of the research group students from a creative experience called ViaMedia. ViaMedia is comprised of top incoming VCT students who, led by senior managers, take on two or three service-learning projects in media each semester to help area businesses and nonprofit organizations.

"It’s hard work," Hatch said. "It just happens to be something we like to do."

July 9, 2007