topical media & game development

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navigation by query

Virtual worlds form (in itself) a rich repository of multimedia information. So, when working on the musical feature detector, sketched in sectin 6.3, the thought occurred to ask funding for a research project on information retrieval in virtual worlds. This project is called RIF, which stands for


Retrieval of Information in Virtual Worlds using Feature Detectors

For the RIF project, we decided to develop a small multi-user community of our own, using the blaxxun Community Server. Then, during the development of our own virtual environment, the question came upof how to present the results of a query to the user. The concept we came up with was navigation by query, and in this section we will look at the prototype we developed to explore this concept.


On the left is the 2D map of the third floor of CWI, on the right the model generated from it.


case study -- CWI

For our prototype, we took one of the worlds of our virtual environment, the third floor of the CWI. The reason for this is that we were (at the time) doing our research there, and so there were plenty locations of interest, such as the rooms of our collegues, the printer room, and not to forget, the coffee corner. the map CWI
We started out by taking a map of the third floor, and developed a model of it, using a tool developed by a student, who needed such a tool for realizing his game Out of the Dark. the model
When dwelling around in (this part of) our virtual environment, the user may pose (arbitrary) queries, for example where is the coffee machine.



the query
Remind, that after a few hours of research, coffee might be needed to get fresh ideas! navigation
explore discover
As a result, the user is then so to speak taken by the hand and led to one of the coffee machines that can be found on the third floor. In effect, with knowledge of the layout of the building a viewpoint transformation is executed, in a tempo that allows the user to explore and discover the (model of the) third floor of the CWI.

The idea is rather straightforward. Some have asked us why navigation by query might be useful. Well, simply, it seems to offer an interesting alternative to navigation by explicit interaction and navigation in the formof a guided tour. Our primary goal in developing the prototype, however, was to see whether navigation by query is feasible, and under what conditions.



information in virtual worlds

Developing the prototype has forced us to think more explicitly about what information is available in virtual worlds, and (perhaps more importantly) how to gain access to it. So the question we asked ourselves was what are we searching for? Now, in a virtual world, such as the ones built with VRML, we can distinguish between the following types of information: viewpoints, that is positions in the world from where interesting things can be looked at or accessed in any other way; areas of interest, where those intersting things are located; objects, that may provide information or offer particular kinds of functionality; persons, that is other users thatare visiting the world; and even text, which might be on billboards or slides.

what are we searching for?

types of information

  • viewpoints
  • areas of interest
  • objects
  • persons
  • text

Some of this information is, so to speak, hard-wired in the model and may be accessed anytime, in some cases even by scanning the VRML file.


  • static -- always
  • shared -- users
  • dynamic -- runtime
  • temporal -- events
  • hidden -- actions
Other information, however, is of a more dynamic nature, since it might be due to the presence of multiple users, the execution of scripts, or events that happen in response to user interaction. Some information may even be explicitly hidden, such as for example the actions one should take in solving a puzzle or playing a game.

scanning the scenegraph

  • annotations
  • node types
  • textual content
  • materials
  • textures
  • geometry

When the virtual world is loaded, all the information (or at least most of it) is present in the so-called scenegraph, the structure thatis built to render the world. Using the software interface to access the scengraph (which is usually browser-specific), we can look for annotations, node types and textual content to extract information from the world. This information may then be stored in a database, and be reused later for other users and queries. In principle, more advanced techniques could be used to extract information from the materials used, and even from textures and geometry.

presentation issues

In our prototype, we aimed at solving the question how to present the results of a query, using navigation. First of all, we had to choose a metaphor for navigation. Dependent on the object of interest a viewpoint can be selected.

choose a metaphor

get a viewpoint

For a viewpoint, it is just that viewpoint. For an area of interest, the viewpoint selected must enable the user to view the area, and when objects or persons are chosen, care must be taken not to block the users' view by some obstacle.

Now answering a query then comes down to planning a suitable route and apply a series of viewpoint transformations along that route.

answer the query


Not surprisingly, the navigation metaphor we chose was walking as the preferred mode of viewpoint transformtions.

the prototype

The structure of the prototype is depicted in the figure below. In realizing the prototype,we made the following (simplifying) assumptions.


We avoided a number of difficulties by choosing for explicit annotations (which indicate locations and areas of interest), and by avoiding the intricacies of route planning and advanced text processing.

The requirements laid down before hand just stated that we would have a database and that we would avoid superfluous user interface elements.


  • database -- annotations & map
  • 3D (pseudo-immersive) interface
Instead, we used control and input panels written in VRML, in order to provide a 3D(pseudo-immersive) interface.

the system

Now, our assumptions may in principle be relaxed. For example, annotation might be done incrementally by users that visit the world or to some extent even automatically, by using feature extractors. Instead if explicit maps, we may dynamically create maps based on users' navigation patterns. And, instead of simple keyword matching, we may apply more advanced text retrieval techniques.

relaxing the assumptions

  • annotation -- incremental and/or automatic
  • (explicit) maps -- based on user navigation
  • (keyword) matching -- text retrieval


But this is left as future work. Anyway, we were satisfied that we could state the following conclusions:
  • navigation by query is feasible and may help users to find locations and objects
  • determining suitable navigation routes without an explicitly defined map is hard

As is often the result with good research, you solve one problem and a number of other problems come up. So, one of the questions that remains was: how can we improve on navigation? What additional navigation support can we provide?

future work

  • shift in focus -- intelligent agents
  • DLP + VRML -- distributed logic programming

Web Agent Support Program


no database, no walking

research directions -- extended user interfaces

Is desktop VR a suitable candidate as an interface technology for multimedia information systems? And if so, what needs to be done to apply this technology effectively?

At first sight, our vision of applying VR as an interface to multimedia systems seems to be doomed to fail. As Ben Schneiderman, in a keynote for the Web3D Symposium 2002, observes:


Wishful thinking about the widespread adoption of three-dimensional interfaces has not helped spawn winning applications. Success stories with three-dimensional games do not translate into broad acceptance of head-tracking immersive virtual reality. To accelerate adoption of advanced interfaces, designers must understand their appeal and performance benefits as well as honestly identify their deficits. We need to separate out the features that make 3D useful and understand how they help overcome the challenges of dis-orientation during navigation and distraction from occlusion.

Ben Shneiderman

So, even if advanced (3D) user interfaces might be useful, there are a number of questions to raise. Again, following Ben Schneiderman:

Does spatial memory improve with 3D layouts? Is it true that 3D is more natural and easier to learn? Careful empirical studies clarify why modest aspects of 3D, such as shading for buttons and overlapping of windows are helpful, but 3D bar charts and directory structures are not. 3D sometimes pays off for medical imagery, chemical molecules, and architecture, but has yet to prove beneficial for performance measures in shopping or operating systems.

Ben Shneiderman

In particular, according to Schneiderman, we must beware of tacky 3D, gadgets in 3D space that are superfluous and only hindering the user to perform a task. Well-spoken and based on adequate observations! Nevertheless, at this stage, we should (in my opinion) adopt a slightly more liberal attitude and explore in what ways the presentation of (multimedia) information could be augmented by using (desktop) VR. But enough about augmentation. Let's discuss technology, and investigate what is required for the effective deployment of VR from the point of view of intelligent agents!

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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