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The Virtual Tours System.

Designer notes on the technical aspects of the first 'Virtual Tours' system installed within Dudley Castle visitor Centre in 1994.

Designer notes on the Virtual Tours system by Colin Johnson 1994.

Dudley castle is an excellent example for the benefits to be gained out of a Virtual type museum experience, as the visitor can see many of the real-world surviving archaeological structures, and can therefore relate a computer reconstruction to those physical remains. The Virtual Tours(c) system that you can experience at Dudley is the work of many months hard labour.

It is a system that can be operated by anyone with no prior knowledge, skill or dexterity. It is intended for museum type environments where a virtual helmet type application is out of the question. You are guided along pre-set paths by the voice of an historically linked character (John Dudley's household steward making a little money in his Lordship's absence). Options are given at certain junctions as to turn right, left, or travel straight on, thus giving the viewer some control and decision making over direction, without allowing them to become disorientated and lose control, possibly getting lost within walls or floors etc.

All the images are as seen as in the examples provided i.e shadows, textures, reflections. The images are displayed at video resolution to a large screen back projected projection system, all at full frame rate of 25 per second.

During the development of the system I looked at many ways of presenting a computer reconstruction in a museum/visitor centre application. In this type of situation the user(s) could be an individual, a school party, a family, a child , a grandmother, able-bodied or not, everyone has to catered for. So I ruled out the use of fully immersive VR (headsets etc;) because of their insular experience, hygiene problems and restriction of visitor throughput.

At the time of design (1993) real-time rendering had to be ruled out because the image quality required for producing good shadows and reflections at video resolution, meant that any machine that could even get close to full frame rate would be so expensive and/or so highly tuned as to provide only a costly and unreliable device.

Visitors also need to get straight into the experience, there is no time for training, and there should be no requirement for dexterity.

All the virtual paths that the user travels along are therefore pre-rendered using 3D Studio software and stored on Sony CVR laserdisc. The Laserdisc and the commentary are simply controlled by a 486 PC with a fitted soundcard. The Laserdisc has a built in image buffer so that output is visually seamless.

By carefully planning the paths through the structure a very absorbing experience can be provided, where the user is transported at a regular speed to a point where they are prompted to press one of the illuminated pushbuttons, which will then transport them right, left, forward, turn them around or take them up stairs etc to the next point; With paths intersecting the user has the ability to travel with no restriction and with no fear of losing themselves within a wall or floor.

The emphasis for the Virtual Tours(c) system is placed on producing high quality images that reflect accuracy of the reconstructed buildings and artefacts, whilst being easy to use, available to all, and with the minimum of moving parts for reliability.

Queen Elizabeth I visited Dudley castle in 1550.

Queen Elizabeth II visited Dudley Castle on the 24th June 1994 to officially open the visitor centre, where she was the first official user of my Virtual Tours(c) system, and without doubt the first 'Royal' to have a Virtual experience.

This system was referenced in a publication by the British Museum..
Imaging the Past - Electronic Imaging and Computer Graphics in Museums and Archaeology
- ISBN 0-86159-114-3

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