Leonardo On-Line: WOW: North Water World

Leonardo On-Line: Words on Works

North Water World

 Ann Powers


The virtual reality environment North Water World was developed by the Boston Computer Society Virtual Reality Special Interest Group (BCR VR SIG) during the course of many brainstorming sessions. We were interested in enabling the viewer to explore the consciousness and experiences of other lives, while expanding our own experience with three-dimensional (3D) sound. At the same time, we wanted to include a wolf in the work somewhere. Eben Gay was the primary developer and sole programmer. Amatul Hunan coordinated the project. Brendan Mayer developed the 3D sound. George MacKenzie, Veredith Keller, Dennis Lee and Ann Powers built the 3D models [1].

North Water World invites the user to visually and aurally explore three environments while virtually embodied as three distinct entities or avatars. In the first environment/experience, a wolf welcomes the user to the ice world and invites the user to "come run with me." The wolf's viewpoint becomes the user's viewpoint, allowing the user to be free to explore the ice world. Users are confined to each avatar's world until fate---a crack in the ice, a hungry killer whale---transforms them into the next avatar and its specific environment.

In the second environment, the viewer experiences life as a seal underwater, and the third as an ice crystal. While each environment is distinct visually with interactivity and sounds unique to that experience, there is a continuity in theme, and at each transformation users are removed from the avatar to an omnipotent viewpoint where they can see the somewhat violent morphing from one entity to the next. In our next project, we hope to have multiple users interacting in a shared world. From my experience in building other worlds and guiding users, the primary desiderata are immersion (minimal head-mounted display), interactivity (How important is the user in the virtual world? Can he or she affect the virtual world?), sound and finally visual complexity. Sound is a powerful mood/environment driver and not just an enhancement or augmentation of a complete world/experience.

An unexpected observation that I am interested in exploring is the immersed user's reliance upon and need for reassurance and contact from a "Guide," a person either outside of the virtual world or playing the role of a guide in the virtual world.

The challenge of VR modeling is either to abstract realism to the fewest possible polygons while still clearly signifying the intended object, or create a new reality that sustains visual interest, again with the fewest possible polygons. Detail or number of objects or surfaces and textures affect real-time interactivity---the heart of a VR experience. Though the immersive interactive quality of VR is so compelling that it does not have to photograph reality, we are often in the position of defending images or explaining, even to the VR group, why an ambitious idea may be impossible to run. And I find myself at times telling to anyone who will listen, "I really can draw." As an illustrator used to details and realism, I find it has been a leap to create a low-polygon 3D model that is recognizable. However, it is a puzzle I always enjoy.


The BCS VR SIG contributed North Water World as a work-in-progress to The Edge at SIGGRAPH '94. The completed work was a part of "The Computer in the Studio" project, a collaboration between the DeCordova Museum and the Computer Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, exhibited at both sites.


1. North Water World was created with 486/66 GATEWAY 2000, SPEA Fireboard from SPEA Software AG; Beachtron 3D Sound Card from Crystal River Engineering, Inc.; rented speakers and monitor; global 3D Controller by Global Devices; WTK World Tool Kit by SENSE8 Corp.; RGB to NTSC converter from Harmonic Research, Inc.


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