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Published: March 1999.
Cooperative Visits for Museum WWW SitesThimoty Barbieri , Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Paolo Paolini , Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Francesca Alonzo , Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Giuliano Gaia , Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnica, Italy
Paolo Loiudice , Politecnico di Milano, Italy
Table of Contents
The notion of "Virtual Visit", to any place, or, more specifically, to a Museum, may take several different meanings; the following could be examples of them:
Just to make clear what we mean, let us be more explicit:
Which one is the best way of organizing a virtual visit, cannot be said in general, but it depends upon the goals and the aims of the intended visit.
If the intention is to allow the "visitor" to precisely organize a physical visit to the museum, or to let him/her to recall an actual visit already performed, the virtual visit of type "c" is the most effective. Also, the visit of type "c" is of particular interest when the container, i.e. the museum as a building, is interesting, almost at same level as the content.
If the goal, however, is simply to get the visitor interested in the content of the museum (possibly, but not necessarily, encouraging a visit), the approach b is preferable. Approach "a" falls somehow in between the two extremes, since it communicates the conceptual organization of the physical museum, but it does not attempt to visually reproduce it.
In most cases, in current hypermedia, a mixture of different styles of visits is often used.
Approach "a" and "b" are the most popular, with added, sometimes, a little of "c".
The "classical" CD-ROM [Art Gallery, 1993], for example, uses the approach "b", since the actual organization of the museum is completely neglected. A CD-ROM like [Louvre, 1994] or a site as [http://www.nga.gov] are between "a" and "b," with the latter prevailing: the overall organization of the content is independent from the physical organization of the museum, still the location of the exhibit in each room is also made available,
A CD-ROM such as [Orsay, 1996], provides a good combination of "b" and "c", since, at the same time, the museum can be physically navigated , or the content of the museum can be browsed independently from the physical organization.
For a number of, mostly technical, reasons, approach "c" is not very common today, on the web. If not completely missing is used, in limited amount, as a "divertissement" or as a show of technology. Within [http://www.nga.gov], for example, a limited amount of physical rendering of physical rooms is also available, but it is clearly not being considered as the most important, or a very important way of accessing the information.
The approach "c", in addition has a serious intrinsic drawback: it couples technological problems (the choice of tools and of the delivery platforms, with difficult compatibility among the different choices), with possible low performances (on the web, above all), and with a not to accurate rendering of the visual quality of the exhibits. In all the applications, we have seen so far, the visitor can look, for example, at paintings hanging from the walls, but he/she cant see them with adequate visual quality such a to appreciate them aesthetically. At most he/she can vaguely recognize the paintings, and often only with the help of the title being shown somewhere.
The main point of this paper is not to discuss merits and demerits of virtual visits nor to discuss technical issues. We wish to discuss, instead, a related problem: how to transform a lonely experience, as are the virtual visits today, in a more engaging experience, where several people can be involved together.
There are computer applications where several people can interact together: forums, chats, virtual communities, etc, are places where several people can "virtually" meet, talk to each other, exchange opinions, share experiences, etc. While engaged in these activities, however, people do not do anything else, but interact each other. It is our goal, instead, to provide the "virtual" visitor of a museum with the possibility of interacting with other people, while being engaged in a immersive experience of visiting a museum, with large and deep information being involved,
A second starting point for observation are the typical "GroupWare" applications Using NetMeeting, combined with digital videoconferences, for example, two o more people can look at each other, talk to each other, share applications (e.g. an hypermedia application or a whiteboard). The interaction has a good bandwidth ) in the sense that it is easy and effective to interact with other people. The virtual visit is missing, however. One of the participants, of course, may start to navigate within a virtual world. The overall setup, however, is rigid (in the sense that the application is actually local to one of the participant) and it is in practice a solitary browsing made visible to others, not a true cooperation.
In the next section we will examine the possible
different paradigms of interaction, and how we have decided to implement them in the first
The starting point is to observe how the people interact each other, while visiting together a museum.
All sorts of different situations may arise, but let us focus, for simplicity, upon three of them:
A countless number of variations and combination of the above-mentioned paradigms, i.e. ways of visiting a museum can be devised. We focus, for simplicity, upon them calling them, respectively, "free-visit", "loose-group" and "guided-group".
In the rest of this section we will examine, briefly, what type of functionality we would need in order to support those types of visits, while in the next section we will examine our specific technical approach, and a prototype application being developed in cooperation with the Museum of Science and Technology of Milan.
Our goal is to allow the user experiencing a "virtual visit" to share, at some degree, the visit with other users. Our starting point has been an analysis of the three paradigms above described, end trying to implement them in a virtual visit.
Assuming the subjective point of view of a virtual visitor, the following elements of a virtual visit have been analyzed:
Whom other visitors may I see.
Who can see me.
I could look at the scene from fixed points of view, or from my eyes, from the eyes of someone else (e.g. my friend or my group leader),
My movement within the virtual scene can be free, can follows predefined paths, can be dependent upon the movement of somebody else (e.g. my friend or my group leader), .
I can talk to everybody else ("broadcast"), I can talk to a single person ("whisper"), I can talk to a small group of people ("chat"),
I can listen to everybody, I can listen to a single person, I can listen to a small group, ..
The messages can remain the same everywhere within a virtual world, the messages can degrade with distance, the messages can be confined within a world, or span over to neighboring worlds, .
Several other elements could have been considered, of course, but the above list seemed long enough to us for an initial experiment.
The question then naturally arises: what type of technology should be used for the virtual visit?
Without getting into technical details, for the time being not interesting, we rapidly came to the following conclusion: 2D techniques (the standard Web techniques) are very good at providing information (images, text, graphic), and very bed for grasping the overall aspect of a complex situation, with a complex arrangement of objects, and several people sharing the situation. 3D techniques (either photographic or graphic) are very good for grasping complex environments, with several people, and quite bad at communicating information (images, text, video, etc.) of acceptable quality.
Since our goal was to experiment with cooperation, while performing virtual visits, we have chosen 3D virtual environment as the fastest way to get an experimental prototype. Therefore in our current approach 3D is used to browse the museum and to find the way around, while standard WWW techniques are used to provide more substantial information.
VRTalk is our experimental environment; it is a powerful tool that allows creating Virtual Reality three-dimensional worlds, in which people can meet, by means of an Internet connection. Each one of the virtual visitors can remotely explore the Virtual world. In addition a virtual visitor can examine and interact with components of the world. Like in a real world situation, a visitor can see where the other visitors are currently located, where they are going, and what they are doing. Visitors exchange opinions or information, with other visitors, through the keyboard. Visitors can interact with 3D objects, sharing the experience of the interaction, with other visitors.
At the moment the virtual world must be a VRML world (a 3D-Java version is planned for summer 99).
With respect to standard VRML worlds a few extra lines in the code are needed in order to declare which objects are "shareable" with other users. Our experience is that any "reasonable" VRML world can be shared, at a substantial degree. The little modifications required today, need an experienced VRML programmer; by the summer 99 a tool is envisioned in order to automate the transformation.
In terms of delivery, any user connected via Internet, that can execute a VRML application (i.e. that has the proper VRML plug-ins installed) can access a VRTalk application.
In terms of performances, we have experienced excellent results using Intranets based on LANs. Using standard Internet connections degrades performances, of course; in some cases this degradation can be very disturbing, spoiling the user satisfaction. In other cases, however, low performances can be even helpful, since in a cooperative visit everybody should move and react slowly, in order to get everybody else understanding what he/she is doing or attempting to do. This point will be exemplified in the next section.
Explaining how VRTalk works, without going into technical details, it must be said that the shared application runs on a server. All the clients, i.e. the machines of the actual users, have a local copy of the shared application. When a client machine (i.e. a visitor) "acts" upon the world, it "sends" a notification of they action to the server; the server collects all the notifications of actions, and sends them back to all the clients. Each client, in turn, when gets notified of an action performed by someone else, updates its local copy of the shared application. The mechanism above described explains why there can be a certain delay between the action performed by Visitor X, and the awareness of the action by Visitor Y. Therefore the application is conceived for "well behaving" visitors; in other world VRTalk supports a cooperative application (where everybody tries to help everybody else), and not a competitive application, where someone tries to compete with someone else for resources.
The user of a VRTalk application sees a browser window, which is split in two parts. The upper half shows the 3D representation on the world, in which the visitor can move and interact with objects. In this part the user can also see other visitors moving and performing actions. A human-shaped figurine, named avatar, represents every visitor. In the lower half a chat window is provided, in which visitors can write messages to other visitors, and can read incoming messages.
Textual, audio and video information can be linked directly within the three-dimensional world, or by popping up contextual 2D web pages along the VRTalk browser window.
In terms of shaping the cooperation pattern, at discussed in the previous section, at the moment we are experimenting with very simplified features, while a more sophisticated environment is envisioned by the summer 99. At the moment visitors can either belong to the "global environment" or can cluster themselves into Groups. The cooperation rules are the following:
In the next section we briefly illustrate, mainly through pictures, a prototype application, which is a virtual tour within a portion of the MST (Museum of Science and Technology) of Milan. It is clear that it is impossible to reproduce on paper the actual "feeling" of a cooperative virtual visits, but only a few hints are provided.
The prototype application allows a virtual visit across a few rooms of the MST. The MST hosts several objects, artifacts, pictures and documents concerning the development of science and technology around the world, but with a specific emphasis upon Italy. The museum is hosted in an old building, which was used once as a monastery; one of the nicest spot, in fact, is a cloister. Among the objects hosted by the museum, specific relevance have the "Leonardo machines": they are wood machines (build in the period across the end of the last century and the beginning of this century), trying to physically recreate what is understandable from the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Most of the machines do actually work, in the sense that the visitor of the "real" museum may operate them.
In our virtual visit we have reproduced the cloister and a few rooms; we have "slightly" modified the actual floor plan, since the true one was a little "boring" for a virtual visit. The rooms are "populated" with a few interactive virtual machines, in the sense that that the virtual visitor may interact with them. A few billboards are used to access standard Web pages providing explanatory text.
Therefore, overall, our virtual reproduction is quite crude or poor. Our goal, at the moment, is mainly to gain experience with cooperative visits; by summer 99 a more refined representation of the museum is planned.
In the experiment, used to generate the pictures,
there were four virtual visitors.
Figure 1 shows the point of view of one of the visitors: he/she sees 2 avatars representing two other people currently visiting the cloister.
Figure 2 shows the cloister with three other visitors and a chat (lower half of the page) going on among them.
Figure 3 shows a room with one of the machines (a giant screw) that is possible to interact with. The visitor is actually looking at a group leader.
Figure 4 shows the same situation depicted in picture 3, with the visitor looking through the eyes of its leader, i.e. looking at what the leader was actually looking.
The authors of this paper have the firm belief that transforming virtual visits, from an (essentially) lonely experience, into an experience that can be shared with other people is a very interesting goal. Applications can range from commercial ones (cooperative shopping) to cultural ones. Sharing with friends a virtual visit to a museum, for example, or being lectured by an expert while virtually visiting a museum, can greatly enhance the pleasure and the cultural outcome of the experience.
Several problems still make the goal not easily attainable, and we discuss below a few of them:
On the ground of the above considerations, the following is our research agenda for the near future:
The above agenda should be completed by the summer 99. Even before that time (around the spring 99) we will start, in cooperation with the Museum of Science and Technology, collecting data about the user satisfaction and about usability of the application. The data collected from usability testing and the user reactions, will be the ground to devise better ways to let the "visitors" to cooperate, while performing their virtual visits.
Electronic Materials with No Printed Analogue: