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Virtual worlds

In Episode 3 of Ever Wondered? Series 2, Dr John Watt takes a look at how the virtual worlds created by Kiwi scientists are helping in our real world by revolutionising entertainment, medical research and sports graphics.

What is a virtual world?

So what is a virtual world? John visits 3DLive in Auckland to meet Dr Roy Davies. Roy explains that the whole reason for creating a virtual world is to simulate something for a person. Virtual worlds were first made popular in the 80s. However, as Roy explains to John, it takes a while for a new technology to become mainstream and so it often disappears from view. In this case, the infrastructure needed to be established so that the technology was easily available and the cost equation needed to work. He tells John that now virtual reality is more easily available, people are more likely to say, “Yes, I like this 3D, it’s kind of cool.”

Professor Mark Billinghurst from Canterbury University’s Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab then introduces John to some of the applications they’ve been working on for virtual technology. They’re developing the next generation of computer interfaces, moving away from using a mouse or a keyboard. He shows John an example of classical mediated reality – a comic book where virtual reality content is overlaid onto the page. He then lets John experience flying over Mount Cook and getting up close with a nanotube. This technology is a great tool for visualisations, and Mark says that it could be useful in Christchurch for town planning after the earthquake.

Watch Episode 3, Part 1

The virtual human body

John meets Associate Professor Edmund Crampin and members of his team at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. They’re working on the Physiome Project – an international effort to recreate the human body in virtual form. Edmund explains that they’re using computer models to represent what’s happening in the heart or in the lungs or in other parts of the human body. They want to use these computer models to try to better understand how these organs work as well as to understand how they go wrong in disease.

Associate Professor Merryn Tawhai, who leads the Lung Team, shows John how the model lungs can be used to better understand how these organs operate and how they are affected by disease. John also gets a lesson in just how difficult it is for the software development team to design the software. He meets Dr Randall Britten who explains to John that the model of the heart they’ve developed is only made possible by utilising the powers of a super computer.

Watch Episode 3, Part 2

Watching sport with the virtual eye

Revolutionising the way we watch sport hasn’t been an easy challenge but Animation Research Limited (ARL) in Dunedin has done just that. John meets Ian Taylor, founder of Animation Research Limited, and hears how they have been at the forefront of 3D graphics for decades.

John finds out how this very clever team have designed 3D graphics that have made yachting more of a spectator sport. He talks in more depth with software developer Geoff Bolton and finds out how ARL developed 3D graphics that help cricket umpires to review their decisions.

John wraps up the episode by surmising that, as our computer processing capability increases, so does our ability to create even more detailed and immersive environments. Therefore, the potential for virtual worlds is virtually limitless.

Watch Episode 3, Part 3

Useful links

Find out more about the HIT Lab. external link

An overview on the Physiome Project. external link

Activity idea

In conjunction with this episode of Ever Wondered?, your students might like to watch these video clips of how computer modelling in used in other research areas and read a broader article about scientific modelling.

Here, Associate Professor Rod Dunbar (University of Auckland) discusses the importance of 3D models, such as Hayley Reynolds’s model of melanoma spread patterns, in medical and biological science.
Models in science

In this video clip, Dr Mike Spearpoint from the University of Canterbury describes how computer modelling is used to predict what might happen in a fire.
Computational modelling

Modelling in science occurs when scientists are developing their explanations of the world. Read this article to find out more.
Scientific modelling.

Context link

To investigate existing medical imaging technologies and compare them to the technology being developed in the Physiome Project, check out this Science Learning Hub context.

See-through Body: This context explores new and evolving medical imaging technologies that help us find out what’s happening inside a body. These technologies play an important part of diagnosing disease and injury.
See-through Body


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