BGSU ‘virtual worlds' devotees headed to Europe

Dr. Larry Hatch, professor of visual communications technology in the College of Technology at Bowling Green State University, works with "Digital Magician" student Eric Gang (seated) as they access a new virtual reality project called The Alamo:A Pocket Virtual World. The cyber-hotshots plan to use state-of-the-art digital technology to construct a visual panorama of the Alamo National Park that visitors can actually walk through instead of merely observing it on a two-dimensional computer screen.

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Travelers from Bowling Green State University will take a lot of pictures during a study abroad experience in Europe over the next year, but many of the photos won't end up in albums. Instead, they will go into Pocket Virtual Worlds Ô .

Pocket Virtual Worlds Ô is new technology that allows for navigation of virtual environments while people are actually walking around and exploring the real environments. The photographs are used to create the panoramas in which people can navigate by using a personal digital assistant (PDA).

The technology's co-developer is Dr. Larry Hatch, a professor and chair of visual communication and technology education at BGSU, who leaves for Europe on July 18. Traveling with him will be four students in his Digital Media Research Group. They will be based in Salzburg, Austria, where they will work with faculty and students at the University of Applied Sciences (“Fachhochschule”).

Hatch spent three days in Salzburg as part of an international delegation when the university opened about 18 months ago. When the institution sought exchange possibilities, the BGSU professor thought it would be a good place for his students to interact with international colleagues and share complementary research. That research includes Pocket Virtual Worlds Ô , and, as Hatch points out, Europe offers “all sorts of things to photograph and put in this technology.”

The premise of the new technology is this: if a panorama represents a single point in space, then an array of panoramas is a virtual world. In the photographic environment, the 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. Unlike GPS, it works indoors or outdoors.

“Every time you take a step, you see a world from a different perspective,” Hatch said, explaining that a Pocket Navigator Ô 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.

Hatch sees a variety of educational possibilities for the technology, including the benefit of getting youngsters away from their computer monitors. 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 the technology's co-developer, Jared Bendis of Case Western Reserve University, already have taken about 230 panoramic photos at the Alamo to create a working prototype for the Pocket Virtual Worlds Ô system.

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

Traveling to Austria with Hatch will be BGSU juniors Alex Mach and Eric Gang, both from Centerville, and Jason Mellen, of Palm Bay, Fla. and Brian King, from Elyria, both veteran undergraduate researchers starting their first year as graduate students. Mach is a computer science major, while Gang is studying visual communication technology (VCT). King and Mellen are both graduating in VCT and are enrolled in the master's degree program in career and technology education at BGSU.

Other members of the Digital Media Research Group come from different majors, including education, art and math. 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 Ô "the beginning of a new and innovative way to invoke learning."

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."

# # #

Media Contact: Scott Borgelt, phone 419-372-2716.

(Posted July 03, 2007 )