Friday 27 March 2009

Gallery invites public to explore virtual metropolis

A virtual Dublin allows research on everything from computer games to urban planning

ALMOST EXACTLY two years ago, I wrote a story about Metropolis, an incredible and precise virtual Dublin under construction by researchers at Trinity College Dublin.

Supported by funding from Science Foundation Ireland, Metropolis was bringing together not just the expected computer scientists and engineers but also neuroscientists interested in how populating such a virtual world could give insight into how the human mind works and how people respond and act in crowd scenarios.

In addition, city planners and the Environmental Protection Agency were interested and involved in the project because of its ability to offer test cases for changing the urban landscape or responding to a natural disaster.

The problem for the average Dubliner, or Dublin visitor, though, was that they had no opportunity to see this virtual world themselves. Well, now anyone can come see a bit of virtual Dublin – more precisely, virtual TCD – at the latest event at Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery, which, like the research project, is also called Metropolis.

You can don 3D glasses and view Front Square as an immersive three-dimensional world, or see how computing graduates have manipulated a model of Trinity on an X-Box to show different special effects such as lighting and atmospheric changes. Visitors can participate in research that will contribute to the overall project.

There is also a fantastic game designed in co-operation with children at Dublin’s Central Remedial Clinic that has enabled them to explore the virtual city themselves.

The goal of the Metropolis researchers has been to create the largest simulations of crowds ever achieved, using motion-capture technology for the animated inhabitants who stride through this recreated Dublin as if they own the place. The research is modelled around five main areas of design and investigation: motion, appearance, sound, behaviour and multisensory perception.

Prof Carol O’Sullivan, a computer scientist and one of the principal investigators for Metropolis, says the virtual Dublin is allowing graduate student researchers to conduct experiments they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise on crowds, which will benefit computer games development and urban planning. Nine experiments are available for public users, ranging in time from five to 15 minutes.

One of the experiments in which visitors are able to participate involves them donning headphones and trying to pick out an individual in a crowded Front Square while people shout out “hellos” and “over heres” from various corners of the square.

The experiment looks at how much sound influences a viewer and would be very hard to replicate with real people in Front Square as you could hardly get enough volunteers for a big crowd for days on end, or have them shouting out all day long.

Other experiments ask users to gauge the number of cloned figures that are part of a large walking crowd, determine the emotions of a crowd, or pick out an object in busy traffic.

Perhaps the weirdest is a project in which the user tries to guess from body and leg movements which hidden animal is “dressed” as a sheep.

O’Sullivan says trying to use farm animals to get the motion-capture data was a particular challenge – especially the woolly body and legs of the sheep. But I can report with certainty that looking at a virtual sheep that is walking like a cow is a bit disconcerting as well.

O’Sullivan says the data gathered from adult visitors will be used by the graduates as part of their research. Children are more than welcome to try their skills on the workstations as well, but their data will not be used.

A number of film screenings and talks are also a part of this week’s event, which runs through this Sunday. Wall-E and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are on today and tomorrow.

There is a talk by the creators of Metropolis at lunchtime today at the gallery, while this evening features a discussion on creating crowd scenes by Paul Kanyuk, a technical director with famed Pixar Studios.

Tomorrow there is a talk on a similar topic with Rhythm and Hues, the company that produced crowd scenes for the Narnia films as well as a Night at the Museum and other films.

Tickets are free but very limited – get more information and check availability with the Science Gallery or online, at

Metropolis is now going into the final two years of its funding, says O’Sullivan, who adds that researchers are delighted to have the chance to show it off a bit to the public.

The next step is to start developing specific commercial applications, most likely in the areas of games development and urban planning.

Irish Times

No comments: