THE VIRTUAL REALITY skeleton project

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The objective of this project is to provide a flexible, interactive teaching tool for a human anatomy and physiology lecture and lab. This self-paced, interactive program, created using QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR), affords students the opportunity to study the various bones of the skeletal system in the human body at their own pace and on their own time. Users are able to access this program on the campus of Broward Community College from Learning Resource Centers, or by connecting to the network from home. Students often find the study of human bones overwhelming and approach it with trepidation. This hands-on, self-paced program puts learners at ease with the material by promoting a sense of control and certainty. This article presents an overview of the QTVR technology with examples of its application in education, and discusses the process of creating a QTVR object movie.

virtual Reality is generally defined as a three-dimensional, computer-generated synthetic environment or structure that gives the user a sense of being immersed in a real world (Spargue 1996). The Virtual Reality Skeleton (VRS) Project was designed to address the students' need to meticulously study the skeletal system without being confined to a particular time and place. The VRS also helps students identify the markings of the bones, as well as the processes, depressions and foramina on the skeletal system. The program identifies bones and their associated structures. The lab and lecture learning objectives guide the development process of the VRS so that the learning process is user-centered (Kemp, Morrison & Ross 1998).

The program will soon be available on the college network and streamed for access over the Internet. This will facilitate access to students who will be able to use their personal computers from home or from any other remote location with Internet access. Thus, the studying and learning processes will no longer be confined to a laboratory setting or limited to a lab period. Moreover, a hands-on, self-paced program puts learners at ease with the material by promoting a sense of control and certainty, thus enhancing the learning process (Kemp, Morrison & Ross 1998). In addition, the VRS can be manipulated to rotate the view of bones, further strengthening the learners' ability to study the structures.

The program design consists of numerous screens, each displaying individual bones of the cranium, axial, and appendicular skeleton and their anatomical markings.

 

What is QTVR?

QTVR is an immersive technology that gives the user control to interact with images in a non-linear manner. QTVR is based on the rendering of photographic images of real objects rather than computer-generated images, as is the case with other forms of 3-D programs. There are two basic types of QuickTime VR images: panoramas and object movies.

In a panorama movie, the viewer is placed at the center of a view and, using the mouse, is able to pan a full 360 degrees horizontally. In some cases, it is possible to create a panorama that provides panning up to 180 degrees vertically. Users can also zoom in and out of the panorama. Two or more individual panoramas are linked together using "hotspots" that allow users to "walk" through an area. Designers can enrich the experience for the user by embedding other forms of media, objects and hyperlinks into the panoramas. They can be developed using software such as CorelDraw 9 for a Windows platform, or QuickTime VR Authoring Studio software for a Mac. The final panorama product is viewable using either platform.

Panoramas are represented by a 360-degree view from a single point in space while QTVR objects are essentially the opposite. In an object movie, the object is the center of rotation, and the viewer, by moving the cursor, can rotate the object to examine it from different perspectives. QTVR objects are represented by a sequence of individual views. Each view is rendered as a single photo. The images are not stitched together as in a panorama. The ordered sequence of views of the object enables QTVR to provide the apparent smooth transitions between the various views. To create an object, the designer needs an Apple computer and QuickTime VR Authoring Studio software. The final object movie can be watched in either a Mac or Windows platform with the appropriate plug-in. Plug-ins are free and can be downloaded from the Apple Web site at www.apple.com/quicktime/download/.

QTVR in Education

Until recently, Virtual Reality, which was initially developed as a technology for the military, had few applications in mainstream computing. However, the recent drop in price and increase in hardware power of PCs has brought VR applications into mainstream computer use. One particularly popular application of VR today is computer games.

Panoramas are also being used to provide virtual field trips on the Web. Many Web sites use panoramas for educational purposes. TerraQuest's Virtual Galapagos at www.terraquest.com/galapagos/ allows a visitor to study the ecology, wildlife, history and geology of the Galapagos Islands. Numerous colleges and universities are using panoramas to capture the feel of their campuses and facilities. Ohio State University offers visitors a virtual tour of the campus at www.osu.edu/visitors/tours/qtvr.html. Users can explore Harvard University through 75 linked QuickTime panoramas. Visitors can wander about Harvard's impressive yard and venture into classrooms, libraries and dorm rooms at www.news.harvard.edu/tour/qtvr_tour/index.htm. A good example of the use of QTVR in the area of science can be seen at Wright State University's Anatomy Department at www.anatomy.wright.edu/QTVR/qtvr.html. The Department provides object movies that allow visitors to examine anatomical structures, such as skulls, hearts and knees.

 

Product Development

The following is the recommended, step-by-step process for developing a QTVR movie:

- Design and produce storyboards.

- Design the material using the storyboards.

- Obtain the model(s) that you will be working with. An unassembled model of the skeleton was used to complete the VRS project.

- Create a background. In order for the structures to be viewed clearly, it is necessary to use a homogeneous background color for taking the pictures, preferably black. Blue construction paper was used to create the background for the VRS project.

- Construct a rotating device upon which each model is to be placed and photographed at 12 different angles. The device, in this designer's case, consisted of a metal base with wheels, which was divided, through the use of cardboard partitions, into twelve 30-degree angles with a metal rod for attachment.

- Utilize a digital camera, attached to a tripod, to photograph each structural view.

- Edit each picture using Corel Draw 7 to change the background color from blue to black, and to remove any traces of the base and metal rod.

- Utilize QuickTime VR rendering to import the pictures to an Apple computer via a Zip drive .

- Produce the final VR movie for each structure using an Apple Power Macintosh 750, or comparable computer, and VR Studio Software.

- Assemble all of the parts into an HTML document so users will be able to access the VR project via the Internet.

- Complete the documentation for navigation and use of the program. In this designer's case, this step required the gathering of graphics and information about the QuickTime VR program. Use FrontPage 2000, or any graphical HTML program, to create the final document. The final HTML document for this project, including all of the content and hyperlinks, was created using Microsoft FrontPage 2000.

A standard or digital camera using still images or a video camera is necessary to generate the images of the object that you are working with; however, a standard camera provides greater resolution. If a standard camera is used, the developer must scan the pictures to digitize them (all at 72 dpi). Some photo developers digitize images onto a CD. The camera must be stabilized during the shoot through the use of a tripod or some other securing device. Any type of camera can be used to capture images, but the type of camera and lens used affects the process. A video camera is more efficient than a still camera since the images can be directly imported into the program. However, if a video camera is used, a video capture card is needed to import the images into a computer.

The easiest and least expensive way to obtain digital images is with a digital camera. A digital camera stores its images on either 3.5" floppy disks or flash cards, making the transfer to a computer easy. The number of images a card will hold varies, depending on the manufacturer and image resolution.

A well-equipped computer is necessary to create QTVR scenes efficiently. Most Macintosh computers with sufficient hard disk space and RAM memory can be used. It is recommended that designers use the following specifications when creating scenes:

- Power Macintosh (any model, though faster CPUs will reduce processing time). Apple Power Macintosh 750 was used for this project.

- CD-ROM drive

- 40 MB RAM (more is always better)

- Mac OS 7.1 or higher

Taking the Photos

The rendering software assumes that the photos taken are numbered in increasing order. The total number of pictures required depends on the detail that the designer is striving for, but a minimum of 12 photos is required (360 degrees divided into 12 = 30 degrees). The images need to be edited and cropped, using a photo-editing program before the QTVR movie can be created. Corel Photo Paint 7 was used for this project. A uniform black background was selected, and the photos were saved in JPG format. The designer should be careful to choose a size that is easily displayed on a 15" computer screen, since this is the most common monitor size.

Authoring Tool

After editing the images, the next step is to create the object. QTVR Authoring Studio puts frames in alphanumeric order. If the designer wants the images to appear in sequential order, the designer must label the images, "001name," "002name," and so on. A window appears upon opening the Object Maker. The designer defines the characteristics of the item by selecting Defining the Object, and must enter the number of columns and rows of pictures and the degrees of separation among each consecutive picture. Columns refer to the number of pictures in the horizontal plane, while rows refer to the number of pictures in the vertical plane. The information entered will vary with each item, however, the minimum number of pictures necessary to achieve a 360-degree rotating object is 12.

At this stage, the designer must import the pictures by selecting Add Files, at which point a window with the characteristics defined forthe object will appear in the Object Maker window. The pictures can be imported by drag-and-drop and selected in a group or directly from a video camera. The designer should check to make sure that the images are oriented properly and in the right order, and make any necessary adjustments.

To open the Object Maker Settings, one must simply select the Object setting. The designer should use the defaults for compression and object, although he or she can experiment and watch the results on the output movie. Two important areas, which merit close attention, are Playback and File. Playback determines the orientation, viewing size and field of view when the user opens the object. It is important to consider that most users' computers can only display a screen resolution of 640 x 480, which limits the size of the item. Also, the bigger the object, the more time it will take to download if it is going to be accessed through the Internet.

The File tab allows the designer to write copyright and other significant information about the object. Flattening is necessary if the designer is sharing the object with other people, and if he or she is producing it for a Windows environment.

After selecting all of the appropriate settings, it is necessary to make the object. It generally takes only a few minutes to create an object, depending on the computer and the number of pictures involved in the process. After selecting the settings, a playback window appears that allows the designer to observe the object in accordance with the selected setting. If necessary, the designer can change the settings and remake the item using the new settings.

The Output file produces two files: a .MOV file and a .OBJ file. The latter is the QTVR movie file. The .OBJ ending must be changed to .MOV for the program to work properly if the movie is intended for a Windows platform. To change the ending, the designer must rename the file. Once the file has been renamed, the designer must copy the files necessary for each platform and use an HTML editor to embed the files/movies into a Web page. After uploading the newly created HTML files to a Web server, the designer should check the download time using various browsers. If the time is too slow, the designer should reduce the size of the image.

The process for creating a QTVR movie is relatively simple. Additional help can be found online at QTVR on the Web (www.apple.com/quicktime/authoring/vronweb.html) and at QTVR Online Tutor (www.letmedoit.com/qtvr/qtvr_online/course_index.html).

Why Use VR?

One of the reasons for multimedia's success is the dual coding aspect of the information processing theory (Bagui 1998). According to this theory, humans take in information from the environment through their sense organs: the eyes, ears, taste buds and nerves in the skin. This information then g'es into short-term memory and is eventually processed into long-term memory, becoming the person's knowledge base. The more senses involved in the learning process, the better the learning experiences. The use of multimedia and VR evokes multiple senses as opposed to more traditional methods of learning that generally involve the use of a single sense, such as sight.

Moreover, VR is not only an immersive experience, where the user is in control. It is also a perceptive experience. The 3-D structures can also be manipulated in time and space, further enhancing the learning of the structures. VR is the wave of the future in education, and educators should take advantage of its countless benefits as a learning tool.

Results of Usability Test

A focus group, consisting of two instructors and a staff member from the LRC at Broward Community College, was used to validate the criteria. The criteria validation was performed through formal discussions regarding the content and development of the program (Shneiderman 1998), and through the subsequent use of the software and a survey evaluation form (Nielsen 1996).

The installation of the software in the LRC required the installation of Apple's QuickTime VR plug-in, which was available from Apple's Web site. One staff member and one faculty member found the interface easy to navigate, while the remaining faculty member required additional time to familiarize himself with the QTVR technology. All of the group members agreed that making models of the bones available online would facilitate the study of the bones of the skeletal system, particularly since the college has only one complete skeleton that must be shared by all of the anatomy and physiology students who use the LRC (60 students per term).

The members of the focus group enjoyed the freedom to view the bone structures in a 3-D format while being able to manipulate and rotate their view. Each participant was able to recognize the various markings of the bones, processes, depressions and openings (foramina) easily. Group members were also impressed with the fact that students could access the program from their personal computers at home, thus relieving some of the overcrowded conditions in the LRC. Overcrowding is particularly frustrating to students who use the facility for reinforcement of learned material prior to practical exams. Participants' reviews and recommendations were incorporated into the final product.

Another focus group consisted of students from BCC. The students' schedules were coordinated to maximize the availability of both students and resources. The participants' knowledge of computers varied from intermediate to advanced. Three individuals were unfamiliar with the software package. Three other subjects had more than one year of experience using a previous version of the program.

It took an average of two minutes for users to read the instructions and familiarize themselves with the interface. After the initial interaction, the completion time expended in the evaluation itself varied with the computer skills of the users and their interest in the program. Some subjects followed the instructions step-by-step, continuing in a pragmatic manner from start to finish. Other users explored the program once they completed a particular task, thus, taking longer to complete the final evaluation.

The program did not produce any errors that could be observed during the evaluations. If the subject made a mistake by typing or clicking on the wrong icon, he or she easily recovered. However, the subjects did not receive any feedback when they inadvertently clicked on unintended icons since the program did not perceive their choices to be errors. Most of the subjects quickly chose the correct sequence and continued with their task.

All of the subjects conducting the evaluation put forth their best efforts in completing the task. The students were entrenched in the program well beyond the task at hand and were amazed by the quality of the diagrams and the amount of information available to them. Most subjects had a positive attitude toward the program. Subjects with more experience had better attitudes overall than neophytes with minimal experience. Although no major problems were identified during this usability test, the evaluators made recommendations that have since been incorporated into the user interface of the VR Skeleton.


Angel M. Rodriguez is an assistant professor in the Department of Science at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and has been teaching science courses for more than 10 years. Selected as Professor of the Year, 1999-2000, he is a pioneer in the use of the Internet as an integral part of teaching at BCC. Rodriguez has made numerous presentations on the topic of using multimedia to enhance education. He received his Master's degree from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and is currently completing his doctorate in Computer Technology in Education at Nova Southeastern University's School of Computer and Information Sciences.

E-mail: arodrigu@broward.cc.fl.us


References

Bagui, S. 1998. "Reason for Increased Learning Using Multimedia." Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 7(1), 3-18.

Barnett, M. 1998. "Testing a Digital Library of a Technical Manual." IEEE Transactions of Professional Communications. 2 (116-122).

Kemp, J. E., G. Morrison, and S.M. Ross. 1998. Designing Effective Instruction. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ. pp. 37-48, 69-89.

Nielsen, J. 1996. "How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation." Available: http://www.useit.com/papers/heuristic/heuristic_evaluation.html. January 5, 2000.

Shneiderman, B. 1998. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction 3rd ed. Reading, MA. pp. 74-75, 134-143.

Spargue, D. 1996. "Virtual Reality and Pre-College Education: Where are we today?" Learning and Leading with Technology, 23, 10-12.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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