VSim: A new interface for integrating real-time exploration of three-dimensional content into humanities research and pedagogy

July 15, 2013, 08:00 | Workshop, Regency B, Union

Study of the built environment is central to humanities scholarship. The meanings inherent in urban plazas, simple homes, and lavish government buildings are integral to an understanding of the human condition. Even as a plethora of new tools and technologies encourage exploration of our physical world in three dimensions, integrating 3D content into academic research and pedagogy remains a challenge because of the limitations of available mass market software for educational interaction with virtual environments. VSim, a new NEH-funded prototype software interface for real-time exploration of 3D content, has the potential to significantly and positively impact humanities scholarship by fostering use of 3D content across grade levels and humanities disciplines, providing opportunities for engaging pedagogical activities, and opening up newavenues for humanities research.

VSim provides a much-needed real-time interface for academics working with 3D content. It allows users three modes of navigation, includes a mechanism for creating linear narratives through the virtual world that can be augmented by text and images (think PowerPoint or Prezi in 3D space), and provides a way for content creators to link to primary and secondary resources from within the modeled environment. Through these two features — the narratives and embedded resources — VSim provides scholars, educators, and students the opportunity to build knowledge through exploration of the virtual world as never before possible. It responds to the needs of inservice educators by supporting both teacher-centered presentations and student-centered exploration, providing the opportunity for students to actively engage with the content to build knowledge by creating a personalized virtual learning environment. And most importantly, VSim breaks down the barriers to instructional use of 3D content by providing a simple interface that easily re-purposes the crowd-sourced computer models built for Google Earth and available in them Google/Trimble 3D Warehouse.

For academics actively creating 3D content, VSim is a viable alternative to online virtual worlds and gaming platforms for the exploration, presentation, and distribution of their work. Within a project team, VSim can be used to interact with raw model files and any referenced component parts (e.g., linked texture maps and external references). Simple narratives and embedded resource files can be constructed to support that interactive experience; the annotation feature can be incorporated into the construction process as an ‘in world’ strategy for marking up the 3D content and generating ‘to do’ lists; and the metadata associated with the embedded resources or included as annotations can be used to promote a dialog about the modeled environment within the project team. When it is desirable to share the model with colleagues and peer reviewers, VSim can be used to export a single file for distribution. In creating this distribution file, content creators have the option to include information about the model and its creation, locked versions of their narratives and embedded resources, and to impose restrictions on the contents. The distribution model can be packaged with a branding overlay (e.g., a screen icon of the lab logo or text identifying the content creator), an expiration date beyond which time the model file will no longer launch, restrictions on the size of the simulation window to control performance and help curb unauthorized image capture, and restrictions on user navigation. The intent of the distribution and restriction options was to provide content creators a mechanism to protect their intellectual property and encourage them to share their work, thus facilitating secondary scholarship and educational re-use of these rich academically generated virtual worlds.

At the time of this writing, the interface is undergoing final testing before the VSim 1.0 release scheduled for Spring 2013. While every effort has been made to keep the software as simple and intuitive as possible to encourage use — even by the technologically challenged — it is still new software that comes with a learning curve. Users have to be comfortable navigating in 3D space before they can engage with the pedagogical tools developed within the interface. It is the goal of the tutorial to provide a low-stress opportunity for academics to overcome that learning curve and become acquainted with key features of the software. (VSim, a sample model of the Pantheon, and user documentation are available for download at https://idre.ucla.edu/gisvisualization/vsim.)

Figure 1.
A screenshot of the Fine Arts building, now the Museum of Science and Industry, from the Urban Simulation Team’s reconstruction of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, an example of a real-time model being built at UCLA and intended for educational use.

Figure 2.
In the screen snapshot above, the Urban Simulation Team’s model of the Street in Cairo installation from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 is shown in VSim; the individual nodes of a linear narrative are visible in the bar across the top of the simulation window and the embedded resources available to the user are shown along the bottom of the screen. On the right, an illustration from Daniel Burnham’s Book of the Builders has been opened for comparison with the computer model. On the left, note from the content creator discusses how the Street was photographed for 19th century viewbooks.

Tutorial Details


Lisa M. Snyder will lead the tutorial. Snyder is a senior member of the Urban Simulation Team at UCLA and on staff with the Institute for Digital Research and Education, a division of UCLA’s Office of Information Technology. She is also a principal investigator on the NEH-funded VSim project. Her research is focused on the educational use of largescale interactive computer reconstructions of historic urban environments. She is currently working on a real-time reconstruction of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. This model is regularly showcased at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and appears in the documentary Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City. Snyder was also the primary modeler on the interactive computer reconstructions of the Temple Mount site that were developed jointly by the Urban Simulation Team and the Israel Antiquities Authority for the Davidson Center in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. (For more information: http://www.ust.ucla.edu/ustweb/Projects/columbian_expo.htm and http://www.ust.ucla.edu/ustweb/Projects/israel.htm)

Target Audience

The proposed half-day tutorial will introduce VSim to interested humanities scholars. Probable participants would include academics across the humanities disciplines who are working with 3D content, supervising students on historic reconstruction projects, using available 3D content to supplement their ongoing research activities, or interested in integrating computer models into their seminars, classrooms, and conference presentations. Interest in this tutorial is difficult to predict, so has been organized to work whether capped at 20-25 to ensure individualized attention to each participant or opened up to a larger audience.(The only impact to being flexible is the size of the volunteer pool for the participant presentations scheduled towards the end of the tutorial.) The need for an advance CFP is not anticipated.

Session Outline

Introductory Presentation (30 minutes)

Snyder will begin the tutorial with an introductory presentation about the main features of VSim with a demonstration of the Urban Simulation Team at UCLA’s model of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This large-scale environment is an appropriate testbed for VSim because it includes enough detailed content to allow multiple narratives, an extended suite of embedded resources, and opportunities for user-guided exploration. The introduction will also cover opportunities for humanistic research in 3D environments, suggestions for pedagogical use, strategies for using VSim in presentations and for assignments, and discussion of the metadata associated with the 3D content, narratives, and resources embedded in VSim.

Hands-On Training (2 hours and 30 minutes)

  • Identifying Content (15 minutes) Discussion of 3D modeling packages that can export VSim compatible files (e.g., Trimble’s SketchUp or Autodesk’s 3ds Max); how one might use VSim to share 3D content with colleagues; downloading 3D content from Trimble’s 3D Warehouse. (From this point forward, participants will use VSim to interact with their own content, a model prepared for the tutorial, or a model downloaded from 3D Warehouse.)
  • Navigation Basics (15 minutes) Instructions for working with the three modes of interaction (WASD, Flight Simulation, Object Navigation); the following break an also be used to help any participants having difficulties mastering navigation

BREAK (15 minutes)

  • Building Narratives (30 minutes) Instructions for building narratives within the virtual environment: establishing narrative nodes; adding overlay text and images; adjusting timing on nodes and transitions; exporting narratives
  • Embedded Resources (15 minutes) Instructions for embedding resources within the virtual environment: metadata for resources; file types supported; adding annotations, linked files, and URLs; the auto launch setting; the auto reposition setting; exporting embedded resources; exporting .vsim packaged files
  • Individual Work Session (30 minutes)Participants are given time to finesse presentations and consider applications for the software for teaching and research
  • Participant Presentations (20 minutes) Three to four volunteer participants will share the projects they’ve created in the course of the tutorial; this will require that participants hook up to the projector and present from the front of the room.
  • Concluding Discussion (10 minutes)
  • Participant Presentations (20 minutes) Three to four volunteer participants will share the projects they’ve created in the course of the tutorial; this will require that participants hook up to the projector and present from the front of the room.
  • Concluding Discussion (10 minutes)

VSim: A summary of critical features

(Consider this an Appendix; included in case any reviewers want more information on the software.)

VSim includes key functionality for scholarly interaction with 3D content that can be broken into three categories: functions necessary to import, display, and navigate through the threedimensional content; functions that allow the content contributor and end users to augment the virtual world with multi-media content; and functions that provide the content creator with controls over their intellectual property.

Functions to import, display and navigate three-dimensional content.

  • a) Cross-platform operability: VSim is being released in both Windows and Mac versions with simple user documentation.
  • b) Loading: The software loads multiple three-dimensional file formats including COLLADA (.dae — an industry standard exchange format for 3D content), open flight (.flt — the format used by Presagis’ Creator), and the native OSG formats (.osg, .ive, etc.). The software’s ability to load COLLADA files is particularly important as this makes the entire catalog of 3D buildings in Trimble’s 3D warehouse available to VSim users.
  • c) Interaction: VSim supports three modes of interaction: gamer-style WASD navigation, flight simulation, and Google-Earth style object rotation. This flexibility enables the user to choose how they interact with the virtual environment including a first person point-ofview with the opportunity for unlimited control in all three dimensions.
  • e) Temporal changes to the environment: The software supports two mechanisms to incorporate temporal elements in a 3D model: switches that can toggle between alternative scenarios and a time slider that allows the user to step through a sequence of options within the modeled environment organized to simulate an unlimited number of construction phases or changes over time (.flt files only).
  • f) Image output: VSim generates static images and continuous image sequences that can be assembled into digital video files. These assets can be included in an academic paper or submitted as part of an assignment

Functions to allow the content contributor and end user to augment the virtual world.

  • a) Narratives: Through the narrative feature, either the content creator or end-user can define linear sequences through the virtual space akin to a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation in 3D. Creating a narrative involves establishing a series of key frames within the environment, augmenting those ‘nodes‘ with text and images, and adjusting the timing for pauses on the nodes and the transitions. VSim automatically creates the movement from one node to the next. The mechanism provides an opportunity for a ‘tour’ mode that could be used by educators or in museum installations.
  • b) Embedded resources: Either the content creator or end-user can embed supplementary primary and secondary resources for display during exploration of the virtual world. (The image below illustrates use of embedded resources within the Experiential Technologies model of the Pantheon.) Each resource has its own parameter settings and metadata: links can be constantly available or only visible at specifics points in the model, they can be set to auto launch when the user enters their activation zone or reposition the user so that the simulation view angle matches that of the resource (e.g., to compare the real-world site with the computer model). Resources are launched using the default programs identified by the system’s settings, and can be searched, filtered, and organized into categories set by the content creator. Resources can be embedded within the model to support an academic argument and/or populated for use during free navigation. The combination of the narrative and embedded resources establishes the ground work for the construction of lesson plans, arguments, and narratives by either the content contributor (as subject expert) or a student user (a constructivist learning exercise).
  • c) Annotations Annotations are a specific type of embedded resources that are the equivalent of comments or sticky notes that can be added within the virtual world. This feature can be used by content creators and/or end users in a plethora of ways: to pose questions to collaborators or students in a learning activity, in a series of personal notes from the content creator to end users (“the colors used in this reconstructed element were based on contemporary buildings by the same architect”), or as discrete elements of a non-linear argument set to auto launch as users explore the virtual world.

Figure 3.

Functions that provide the content creator with controls over their intellectual property.

  • a) Binary file format for distribution: The aptly titled “To Share or Not to Share?” report describes the hesitation that many scholars feel about sharing their data before they’ve had a chance to wring out the last bits of publishable results. Three-dimensional content creators are no different, and are particularly protective of raw modeling files. To encourage broad distribution of content, VSim allows content creators to load raw files and export an aggregated model file for distribution. This file would require considerable computing skill to ’reverse engineer,’ thereby offering protection against undesirable use. VSim also allows an expiration date be added to the .vsim file to ensure control over use, appropriate updating for works in progress, and time limits that may come into play when subscription service enacted.
  • b) Branding: An overlay that can be added to the simulation viewport and is visible during any user interactions. The branding overlay can include both image files (e.g., lab logos) and text (e.g. “For Educational Use Only”). The user has the option to lock the content creator settings — and therefore the branding overlay on or off — at the point of export.
  • c) Locks on model, narrative, and embedded resource files: The export feature for narratives and embedded resources includes the opportunity for the creator to the lock the resultant file (essentially creating a READ ONLY file). The intent of this feature was to encourage content creators and/or end users to share files generated for VSim models –. For narratives, all nodes and node overlay information are packaged into a single file for distribution that can be shared and replayed by any user with a copy of the 3D model for which it was created. If locked, no changes can be made to the narrative. Exported embedded resource files can also be locked, but only the annotations and links to websites will be preserved. (This decision was made to control the size of the distribution file; hundreds of resources for a large-scale environment might easily exceed 10GB of data.)