CG AROUND THE WORLD
Vol.32 No.4 November 1998
Computer Graphics as an Enabling Technology for Cooperative, Global Applications
Adérito Fernandes Marcos
Over the last two decades computer graphics (CG) has established itself as an indispensable enabling technology for the development of efficient computational solutions in a wide range of application areas. CG can no longer be regarded as a confined discipline devoted solely to graphic standards or traditional techniques of 3D representation and rendering. The influence of CG can be felt in almost all of today’s key industrial areas, wherever computers are employed. CG is an active component of multimedia technology (graphics, video, audio), CG methods and algorithms are increasingly combined with image processing techniques in computer vision applications, and CG also plays a key role (through image cryptography and digital watermarking) in establishing secure information access and communications on the Internet. More recently CG technology has been used for simulation and animation of living structures, for establishing mobile information environments and virtual worlds, and is a cornerstone in information infrastructures like the Internet, WWW and on-line services.
Accordingly, CG has to be regarded as the enabling technology allowing the modeling, simulation and rendering of virtual worlds, as well as the generation, processing, management and display of graphics of any type, by computational means, where pictorial information may also be combined and correlated with non-graphical application data.
In this article I would like to highlight one of the research and technological areas receiving considerable influence from CG technology, namely the computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) environments. A report on some representative projects and applications in this area is also presented.
Cooperative Work and CG
Since the end of the 1980s, CSCW has emerged as a multidisciplinary research field which studies the role of computers in group work arrangements. It investigates the combination of the enabling technologies of computer networks, human-computer interaction, systems and end user applications with the intrinsic nature of group work .
The CSCW research community has been producing important results in terms of models, definitions and research frameworks, behavioural recommendations as well as computer-based working paradigms in order to implement group work via computer assistance. These results have enabled the development of solutions able to computationally support teamwork in areas and activities where traditional face-to-face meetings or common communication means (mail, fax, telephone, etc.) were mainly used. Typically, we deal here with geographically distributed configurations involving people who, although being located at remote places, want to work together, preferably without leaving their desks and by using their local computational resources (editors, files, printers, etc.). This is shaped by integrating the human component in distributed environments, allowing in this way human actors to interact with their counterparts, by sharing a common information space, running applications or simply by communicating and being aware of each other within the system. Therefore, “cooperative work” relates here to any form of human collaboration supported through computational means.
CSCW research has been decisively influenced by CG through the gradual integration of multimedia and graphical interaction paradigms in the design and development of cooperative environments. In fact, cooperative work environments necessarily involve aspects such as human-computer interaction (HCI) techniques, communication and information handling schemes, which are essentially CG/multimedia research domains.
The integration of the graphic dimension in CSCW environments has been in many cases the decisive factor in increasing their acceptability by the target groups. Indeed, inter-group multimedia communication, group information and improved forms of shared information handling (especially when in multimedia format), can play a decisive role in keeping group members in touch with their counterparts and being aware of the common working context. Multimedia technology and graphics are undoubtedly extensively used pieces of most of today’s cooperative environments, particularly those addressing shared editing. They provide a more objective, expressive and easily understandable presentation of information, which consequently improves computer-supported cooperative work processes.
Moreover the evolution and emergence of new technologies such as wireless networking, hypermedia methodologies or virtual and augmented reality combined with Internet and WWW infrastructures is nowadays enabling the development of real worldwide “cross-countries” cooperative applications. These allow cooperative work to happen from anywhere, at anytime, with any type of hardware platform and using different interaction paradigms (keyboard, mouse, gloves, glasses or helmets).
INI-GraphicsNet — The Worldwide Platform for Cooperation
Though most of cooperative applications have been developed for enterprise-wide or region-wide network configurations, some actually aim to support real global cooperation. The development of this type of application requires, among other things, the availability of an adequate communications’ testbed and network infrastructure platform.
We have now truly established this platform — it is the INI-GraphicsNet:The International Network of Institutions for advanced education, training and R&D in computer graphics technology, systems and applications.
The INI-GraphicsNet currently involves several R&DT institutions located in Darmstadt, Germany (Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics — IGD; Computer Graphics Center — ZGDV; Interactive Graphics Research Group — GRIS) and branches in Rostock, Germany (IGD/Ro, ZGDV/Ro), in Coimbra, Portugal (Centro de Computação Gráfica — CCG), in the U.S.A., Providence, RI (Centre for Research in Computer Graphics — CRCG), in Singapore (Center for Advanced Media Technology — CAMTech) as well as several collaborating universities and other institutions in the different countries. This institutional network with more than 250 employees, and more than 400 research assistants forms the biggest organization for CG and related technologies worldwide.
The INI-GraphicsNet has been used as a network of excellence for the realization of joint projects. Some of these projects have also tackled the development of global cooperative applications in areas as diverse as telemedicine, collaborative virtual environments or distributed computer-based learning. A common communications platform, primarily based on ISDN, is available, allowing computer conferencing arrangements and paradigms for global cooperative interaction to become a reality.
In the next sections I would like to report on some of these joint projects and activities and how they are contributing to the development of a set of cross-country cooperative applications within the INI-GraphicsNet. An example of a generic cooperative application is also described.
The INI-GraphicsNet jointly created the PLATINUM (Presentation, Learning, and Advanced Training in the I*net Using MTS), a common platform for I*net-based (Internet/Intranet) learning and training. The Modular Training System (MTS), the basis of PLATINUM, is a common development of the IGD, ZGDV and the Darmstadt University of Technology (GRIS). The project started definitively at the end of 1997 and will run until the end 1998. Results are expected to be exploited during the subsequent two years.
Currently, the different branches of the INI-GraphicsNet are joining forces to refine the existing distributed infrastructure in terms of finding better solutions on HCI, collaboration and communication according to the specific requirements of each local learning/training environment. To demonstrate the potential of I*net based learning and training, each partner is developing courseware on top of this system that shows the different aspects of innovative learning and high advanced training in the following areas:
The final version of the PLATINUM platform aims to deal with the general aspects of I*net-based lifelong learning, especially focusing on the above-mentioned scenarios, permitting people worldwide to learn alone or jointly; to get the support of remote tutors; to share distributed courseware domains; to cooperate by authoring courses together; to supervise groups of learners; to control cooperatively illustrative simulation processes or simply to have fun by executing interesting courses .
The Virtual Table Consortium forms a continent-spanning network of industrially oriented and basic research groups that provide the necessary expertise, personnel and equipment to look ahead into a new age of cooperative research and development in virtual reality (VR) related technology. The VT consortium involves the INI-GraphicsNet as well as Brown University and the Interactive Graphics Systems Lab (WSI-GRIS) at the University of Tübingen, Germany.
The aim of the consortium is to study the role of 3D computer graphics and virtual environments in the context of global collaborative work. The research work is embracing various applications areas based on innovative interaction devices, techniques and concepts and focusing on the Barco BARON Virtual Table.
Several employment scenarios are now being developed including cooperation of multiple users at a single table as well as single or multiple users at geographically separated tables. The applications may range from collaborative diagnosis using a 3D model of a patient, into urban planning or even the 3D visualisation of complex natural processes .
In order to illustrate the possibilities of this type of technology, the VT consortium has been organising stand-alone as well as distributed INI-GraphicsNet-wide demonstrations. A scenario for a collaborative medical diagnosis and treatment plan using the VT was presented at SIGGRAPH 98 in Orlando, FL, U.S.A. and at Eurographics’98 in Lisbon. Both demonstrations have involved transcontinental video conferencing, immersive interaction, cooperative handling of a patient’s 3D model, stereographic representation of the operating room scene as well as a tracking system for the VT.
Distributed Lab for Publishing
The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics — IGD together with its partners in the INI-GraphicsNet — has gathered together a leading group for advanced research and development in visually oriented and interactive processes, services and applications in order to establish a Distributed Lab for Publishing with the following nodes:
The project is currently in the set up stages at the different labs. A worldwide collaborative distributed platform shall be developed. Each lab contributes its own special expertise to the distributed lab. The final lab platform will serve as a demonstration environment of excellence in publishing technology, enabling further acquisition of projects by the publishing industry.
The Distributed Lab for Publishing acts also as a privileged means of developing new solutions, of testing environments and of gaining experience for the industry. The lab consortium will also cooperate in educational and training programs in the related research fields .
Adérito Fernandes Marcos
VirtualX: An Example of a Cross-Countries Cooperative Environment
VirtualX (Virtual environment of X) has been conceptualized and implemented by IGD and CCG in order to support cooperative facilities in stand-alone environments. Its main goal is to allow sharing of environments (applications and files) among several geographically distributed participants, whose workstations are connected over a network.
VirtualX supports facilities for the integration of stand-alone applications into a cooperative workspace. People may operate their local stand-alone applications inside of the VirtualX environment. They can choose to make their applications (or the whole working environment) shareable for the other group members.
Users can also hold discussions using real-time multimedia communication means (text, audio and video) while sketching over a graphical background or over the shared environment. This represents a complementary form of cooperation, since directly drawing over a specific shared application allows people to mark up details/aspects of it while maintaining direct communication. This makes discussions on complex shared applications easier than using communication means alone.
Finally, VirtualX provides group awareness by allowing the traditional paradigms of cooperative editing: personalised multiple-cursors, WYSIWIS (What You See Is What I See), social roles, users’ identification, telepointing, multi-user interface, multi-user communication. Additional annotation features are available allowing users, or more precisely commentators, to perform comments on the shared documentation .
This system has been recently updated in order to support easier cross-country cooperative work between CCG in Portugal and IGD in Germany. People from both institutions may sporadically share their stand-alone working environments with a remote colleague while looking for help in the context of the currently running applications.
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