Kim H. Veltman

Virtual Reality in Europe

Written for: Laval, General Co-Chair, 1st Forum on the Promotion of European and Japanese Culture and Traditions in Cyber-Societies and Virtual Reality, April 18th-19th 2005, Laval, France.

When virtual reality began in the United States in the mid-1960s there were three main impulses: military, scientific and artistic. Tom Furness III (Wright Patterson Airforce Base, later HIT Lab, University of Washington) focussed on how virtual reality glasses could help pilots filter the enormous complexity of information as they flew in supersonic aircraft. Ivan Sutherland saw virtual reality as a tool for what became scientific visualization: seeing abstract mathematical concepts, scientific principles or natural phenomena which would otherwise be invisible. These initial systems were extremely expensive. Meanwhile, Myron Krueger, an artist, explored how the technology could lead to new modes of expression,  communication and creativity. Significantly, he referred to the new methods as artificial reality.[1]


In 1986, a team at NASA Ames (Warren Robinett, Scott Ellis et al.) put together virtual reality glasses and gloves using “off the shelf ” technology. Almost overnight virtual reality became affordable and fashionable. The earlier concerns continued. Jimmy Blynn (JPL) did an earthquake simulation of the San Fernando Valley and a flythrough of the Mars landscape. NASA was interested in using the techniques for training in space. Warren Robinett moved to UNC, Chapel Hill and explored how virtual reality could be used in architectural design, in the study of molecular structures, heralding the emerging fields of nanotechnology and simulation. The cumulative result of these developments was that the US explored VR especially in terms of abstraction, simulation and design of the possible and the new.


In Europe, pioneers such as Bob Stone explored such potentials of virtual reality for (military) training, virtual shopping, and games. He also explored implications for cultural heritage (Virtual Lowry, Stonehenge). Virtual Lowry also introduced the idea of entering into the space of a painting, an approach pursued by Infobyte in their Reconstruction of Raphael’s Incendio nel Borgo (Stanze, Vatican) and more recently in the MUVII project led by Laval.


Many early European efforts typically used US software but applied them in new ways. In Italy, the architects Chimenti and Menci used AutoCAD in three new areas: 1) with historical maps to reconstruct 11,000 houses in Florence to scale; 2) with photogrammetry to monitor historical buildings; 3) with a detailed reproduction of the interior of San Francesco in Assisi in order to restore Piero della Francesca’s famous cycle with the Story of the True Cross. This was one of the first times that detailed simulations of possible interventions were used to guide the restoration of an actual masterpiece of world art. Meanwhile, Infobyte (Rome) used SGI machines and software to reconstruct cultural monuments such as the Church of Saint Francis (Assisi), the Raphael’s Stanze (Vatican), the Colisseum, and the Tomb of Nefertari. These reconstructions set new international standards for visually convincing versions of great monuments, which were subsequently adapted elsewhere including the Virtuarium in Tokyo. 


These reconstructions were more than just aesthetically beautiful. When an earthquake brought enormous damage to Assisi, restorers used the model as an aide memoire, and some computer enthusiasts saw the 200,000+ fragments of the frescoes as an enormous jigsaw puzzle and assumed that one could use VR to piece the fragments together. This was more elusive than hoped. In Dresden, however, where the Frauenkirche had been bombed during World War II, students at the Technical University literally photographed every piece, used this to create a wonderful VR model (a hit at CEBIT 1994), which was subsequently used to rebuild the original church. In Pisa, a very detailed VR reconstruction of the Tower of Pisa was used to guide both restoration and the engineering feat of diminishing the angle of its leaning. In Bologna, Francesca Bocchi, added an historical dimension to these detailed links between VR and historical monuments by linking the study of (mediaeval) manuscripts and other historical records to explore how the inner city of Bologna had slowly evolved in the course of the past millennium. Her project now entails over 5 terabytes. In Spain, Luis Hernandez (Videalab) applied the T-Vision approach in more detail to the entire province of Galicia.


In France, IBM, working with INA and subsequently ENSAM (Centre d'Enseignement et de Recherche, Cluny) created one of the first detailed reconstructions of a great architectural monument, which is no longer physically extant. This was pioneering a) in its use of interior lighting – before the advent of Lightscape and other radiosity firms – and b) in its use of virtual guides in the form of a monk or a nun. While aesthetically brilliant the reconstruction raised many questions concerning historical veracity and led to a series of further reconstructions in Austria and Germany. Hereby, methodological problems posed by VR came into focus.


Renault was a pioneer in the use of VR in automobile design. Dassault Systems, working with IBM, created the CATIA software. By 1993,  this was also being used in architectural firms especially in Munich used CATIA. It was also used to reconstruct the Frauenkirche. Soon it was used by Daimler Benz, then Chrysler and Boeing and became internationally recognized. Today, via Fraunhofer, CATIA is being integrated into the latest grid projects of the EU. VR has thus become integrally part of the European design and manufacturing worlds. Meanwhile, France introduced another dimension: some of the first books on the philosophical implications of VR: Philippe Quéau and Pierre Lévy.


In Germany, ART+Com (Berlin) created Terravision (T-Vision), the first project that linked satellite images systematically with CAD reconstructions of actual buildings. This project was also the first to be transmitted between Berlin and Kyoto via satellite during an ITU conference (1994). In the US, SRI and the military subsequently created a project by the same name. In Switzerland, the ideas of T-Vision, inspired new links with traditions of Swiss cartography and design (ETH), which led to the first transatlantic, online design course between Toronto and Zurich (1995). Monika Fleischmann, who had worked on T-Vision moved to the GMD (Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung, Sankt Augustin), where she and Wolfgang Strauss initiated pioneering projects, notably Virtual Xanthen, which allowed users to experience the sensation of flying over archaeological sites, while standing on a touch sensitive platform. 


Europe has also explored creative dimensions of VR. At the GMD, Wolfgang Kaul and Simon Briggs explored Distributed Video Production (DVP), which linked VR with Blue Rooms and digital studios. Parallel work on these themes proceeded at Infobyte (Rome) and CINECA (Bologna), where Antonella Guidazzoli worked with both RAI and archaeologists in linking physical ruins from Pompeii with their reconstructions via blue rooms and digital studios. Meanwhile, Vicomtech (San Sebastian) is exploring how VR avatars can adapt digital television to include figures and stories from local traditions using regional langauges.  


In the 1960’s, Czech theatre artists explored how one could move between physical and fictive worlds (Laterna Magica) an idea that Hollywood explored in the Purple Rose of Cairo. Some companies (e.g. Infobyte) have used VR reconstructions of historical monuments in creating new games. In Belgium, artists have used virtual reality in creating on-line comic book worlds (Ubicande). The ALIVE project (Louvain-La-Neuve) explored how live video feeds could be integrated with comic book worlds such that persons could effectively enter into and interact with comic book worlds – thus developing ideas also explored elsewhere by the Vivid Group’s Mandala software (Toronto). 


Europe is beginning to consolidate its experiences in VR and AR. The Intelligent Information Interfaces (I cubed) programme brought together many layers especially through conferences on Virtual Environments and EUROCAV. EUROSIM brings together its simulation societies. Fraunhofer has founded an International Graphics Network. The EPOCH Network brings together a number of players in the field of cultural heritage, (including those from the VAST conferences).


While online gaming has become a reality through games such as DOOM, available in networked form since 1994, the potentials of VR in networked contexts have remained largely unexplored. The combination of high speed networks and grid computing is occuring mainly in the area of industrial design and manufacturing. For historical reasons the audio-visual industries and culture proceed on parallel tracks. Minister Oreja envisioned an online film and television network. There are important experiments in terms of 3-D, auto-stereoscopic television. Yet many of the most stimulating creative experiments (e.g. Ars Electronica) continue as if the internet did not exist. If one could combine these various technologies, there are enormous potentials for new creativity. This is an area where Euro-Japanese can prove very important. Similar principles apply re: Euro-Chinese, and Euro-Indian co-operation.


Hence, while the US has tended to emphasize the virtual in VR, Europe’s focus on historical traditions has brought new links to the  reality of VR. Laval’s saying: “The virtual does not give you a dispensation from being true” (“Le virtuel ne vous dispense pas d’être vrai”) is much more than a clever phrase. It reflects a philosophical position.


At the same time, given its artistic and aesthetic traditions, Europe has tended to build into its systems the same notions of aesthetic distance found in its paintings and the arts. This is fundamentally different from the Japanese (Zen) traditions which tend to merge observer and observed. How can we create VR and VR environments which communicate such differences, which teach us not only about seeing but also about experiencing the world differently? This is an area where EU-Japanese co-operation is a necessity.












[1] Myron Krueger, Artificial Reality, New York: Addison Wesley, 1983; 2nd ed. 1991