The Universal Campus: An open virtual 3-D world infrastructure for research and education

By Pierre Baldi, Crista Lopes / April 2012

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We are at the beginning of a major information technology trend to develop increasingly complex 3-D virtual worlds and immersive virtual realities, and to expand the Web from 2-D to 3-D. In the 3-D Web broadly construed, users can interact, collaborate, and conduct transactions in different virtual worlds accessible through a Web browser or some other interface. While the 2-D Web experience has remained somewhat private, the 3-D virtual world experience is inherently community oriented. Beginnings of this major trend are seen of course in computer games and sharable simulated virtual worlds, such as Second Life. The 3-D Web is poised to profoundly change how we interact, socialize, conduct business, and play. And more importantly how we teach and learn, and how researchers, teachers, and students can meet and collaborate. The Universal Campus is an open 3-D virtual world infrastructure, created to begin exploring and exploiting the new avenues and opportunities that 3-D virtual worlds create in both education and research.

3-D virtual worlds deployed over the Internet are not meant to replace existing modes of communication, such as face-to-face meetings, videoconferencing, or the 2-D Web, but to complement them by bringing in new modes of communication, combined with unprecedented flexibility in both space and time and a unique ability for global reach. Consider for instance, organizing a scientific meeting in a simulated environment, and the main tradeoffs with respect to a real-life meeting.

On the negative side, one may suggest the quality of virtual meetings between avatars is not as compelling as face-to-face meetings between real people in the real world. This is a fair point, although one should not discount the power of technology to provide increasingly realistic, almost haptic, interactions in real time, or the additional creative inspiration that could emerge for users by simply being immersed in a completely novel and unusual environment. However, it must be noted that one of the main desirable properties of a scientific meeting—allowing new ideas to emerge from serendipitous interactions between participants—is entirely preserved in a 3-D virtual world since avatars can move around and meet in pairs or small groups randomly.

On the positive side, there are of course very considerable savings in overall costs and overhead (e.g. no airplanes, no airplane pollution, no time wasted in lines, no jet-lag, no hotels). Furthermore, anyone in the world can potentially participate in the meeting, and each participant can access the meeting from anywhere, possibly even from a cell phone. Avatars can use real-time voice to communicate, as well as computer chat, the latter has an advantage over voice as being asynchronous and not requiring continuous attention. Multiple chat channels can even be used in parallel. Thus 3-D virtual worlds can provide rich communication channels.

While 3-D virtual worlds and 3-D Web technologies are still evolving, they are already available to us in some form and it is not too early to begin to explore their potential for education, research, and other related activities.

The Universal Campus 3-D Virtual World

In essence, the Universal Campus provides a campus 3-D virtual world comprising multiple buildings with fully furnished laboratories, classrooms, meeting rooms, and lecture halls enabling virtual meetings and interactions at multiple scales ranging from group and laboratory meetings, to classes, to lectures, to symposia, and conferences (see Figure 1). The Universal Campus infrastructure also provides a default set of 12 avatars (see Figure 2). The 3-D physical world and the avatars are fully customizable and can be freely modified by the users. Customized avatars can be built from scratch, also by using the integrated avatar editor. A local chat feature allows avatars to converse with other avatars within the same virtual room, while a voice conference feature allows avatars to speak with multiple other avatars simultaneously.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of the Universal Campus.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Avatars in the Universal Campus.

The Universal Campus island is a virtual space of 512x512 square meters, with six main buildings: a large conference center, a building with a medium group-sized meeting room, a multi-floor building with several meeting and lecture rooms, a building with laboratories, a building holding a telescope at the top that also includes a sea-level room at the bottom, and a lighthouse. Figure 3 shows each of these buildings. The campus also includes an underwater ecosystem (see Figure 4).

Figure 3
Figure 3. The six main buildings of the Universal Campus.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Underwater ecosystem.

The Technology Infrastructure

The Universal Campus infrastructure is deployed using a client-server architecture. The client is the Second Life client, which was open sourced by Linden Lab in 2007. On the server side, the Universal Campus uses the OpenSimulator open source project. OpenSimulator is an extensible 3-D application server designed to interact with Second Life clients. It is written in C#/.NET, and runs on both Windows machines and Linux machines using Mono. It is used to implement the .NET Windows programming framework on Linux machines. The backend data layer supports several database technologies; the most popular configuration uses MySQL. The overall architecture of the system is depicted in Figure 5.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Client-server architecture with Second Life Client, OpenSim server (Diva Distro release), Freeswitch voice server, and MySQL database.

OpenSimulator can be operated both in sandbox mode and in interconnected mode. Sandboxes are closed virtual worlds that can only be accessed by members of each virtual world. The interconnected mode allows avatars to travel seamlessly between virtual worlds operated by different organizations; this is known as the Hypergrid [1]. The Hypergrid allows different organizations to run and operate their own virtual worlds, while allowing users to visit and participate in events in other virtual worlds and enabling users from other worlds to visit. This supports collaboration without unnecessary global coordination, and without centralized control. The Virtual Campus is built assuming interconnection to the Hypergrid.

All the content and source code of the Universal Campus is downloadable under Creative Commons or similar licenses. As a result, the Universal Campus provides a complete open access, open source, infrastructure that can be replicated by other users and organizations, deployed on their servers, and used for a variety of research or educational purposes. For example, in addition to the organization of virtual classes and meetings, all 100 or so unique scripts that are included in the Universal Campus are open source and can be used to learn about programming in 3-D virtual worlds. These scripts include, among many others, the code for controlling the movement of the rods in the lighthouse (see Figure 6), the code for opening and closing the closing doors, the code for moving the blades in the windmills, and the code for moving the fish in the ecosystem.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Lighthouse operation detail.

3-D Virtual Environments for Educational Settings

Several immersive environment platforms are already available. Among the commercial ones, Web.Alive provides rich features for immersive collaboration in pre-built environments, which cannot be customized or copied by users. Among the non-commercial, open source ones, OpenWonderland has been used in educational settings as a possible alternative to OpenSimulator, however it does not provide freely available, rich content. Thus even though there are options for the underlying platform, the lack of free, rich, open, and customizable content has been a major obstacle for education and non-profit organization. For many users, this has been a factor in abandoning the technology, as the default environments provided have been too bare and uninteresting. In addition, building new virtual environments from scratch requires a level of expertise and time investment that pose very significant entry barriers. The Universal Campus tries to address all these issues.

A first-generation of customizable virtual conferences has been implemented in Second Life. For instance, Dr. G. Djorgovski at Caltech directs the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA) [2, 3] for exploring astrophysics in virtual worlds and periodically conducts meetings in Second Life. These previous implementations, however, are not fully open since they rely not only on the Second Life client, but also on the Second Life server, which is not open. The Second Life Terms of Service imposes several constraints about the usage of the content produced by the users.

An open educational virtual environment somewhat similar to the Universal Campus is the Open Virtual Collaboration Environment (OpenVCE) created and distributed by Dr. A. Tate [4]. Compared with OpenVCE, the Universal Campus provides a more sophisticated environment, with a considerably larger virtual space and number of objects, and a wider variety of scripts. Furthermore the Universal Campus is the only infrastructure to also provide avatars and corresponding clothing for its users.

In short, the goal of the Universal Campus is to provide a solid starting point for users and organizations to set up a content-rich immersive, virtual environment for research and education, where everything is free to copy, expand upon, and learn with. Made available in the summer of 2011, the Universal Campus is already being used by many people and organizations. Several reviews and descriptions of its deployment it can be found online [5, 6, 7, 8].

The Universal Campus shares the strengths and limitations of the OpenSimulator software. One of those limitations is the number of simultaneous users that can be in a world; for a good, low-lag, experience, this number is currently less than 25. Another issue is the user interface provided by the Second Life client can be overwhelming for users who are not used to rich 3-D environments; it takes some time before a new user can become familiar with the interaction modes offered by the Second Life client viewer. Finally, while rich, the environments and interactions provided by general purpose simulators like Second Life or OpenSim still lack the speed and "haptic qualities" of what is already available in, for instance, specialized games. There is little doubt, however, that progress in hardware and software will progressively address all these issues.

In summary, immersive virtual realities and virtual worlds are emerging as an important educational and collaborative platform, with unique advantages and potential. The Universal Campus provides a downloadable open infrastructure with a virtual physical world and a set of avatars to support a variety of activities, from collaboration and scholarly meetings, to curriculum sharing and distance learning.

The Universal Campus and its documentation are fully available at: universalcampus.igb.uci.edu/.

About the Authors

Pierre Baldi is Chancellor's Professor in the School of Information and Computer Sciences and the Department of Biological Chemistry and the Director of the Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics at the University of California, Irvine. Born and raised in Europe, he received his Ph.D .from the California Institute of Technology in 1986. His research work lies at the interface of the computational and life sciences, in particular the application of AI and statistical machine learning methods to problems in chemoinformatics, genomics, proteomics, and systems biology. He is credited with pioneering the use of Hidden Markov Models (HMMs), graphical models, and recursive neural networks in bioinformatics. Dr. Baldi has published more than 250 peer-reviewed research articles and four books: Modeling the Internet and the Web: Probabilistic Methods and Algorithms, Wiley, (2003); DNA Microarrays and Gene Regulation: From Experiments to Data Analysis and Modeling, Cambridge University Press, (2002); The Shattered Self: The End of Evolution, MIT Press, (2001); Bioinformatics: the Machine Learning Approach, MIT Press, Second Edition (2001). He is the recipient of the 1993 Lew Allen Award, the 1999 Laurel Wilkening Faculty Innovation Award, a 2006 Microsoft Research Award, and the 2010 E. R. Caianiello Prize for research in machine learning. He is a Fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Crista Lopes is Associate Professor in the Department of Informatics, Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to being in Academia, she worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where she helped shape the concept of Aspect Oriented Programming (AOP) and the community around it. She has taken that research thread into the field of information retrieval. Her software engineering research work is driven by the development of large-scale systems. Recently, she has been working on MMO virtual worlds and their applications beyond gaming. She is a core contributor to the OpenSimulator project, a virtual world platform. She is the recipient of several NSF grants, including a CAREER Award. She is an ACM Distinguished Scientist, a Senior Member of IEEE, and Ohloh Kudos Rank 9. Lopes has a PhD from Northeastern University, and M.S. and B.S. degrees from Instituto Superior Tecnico in Portugal.

Acknowledgements

This work has been supported by the NIH National Library of Medicine under a supplement to grant 5T15LM007743 to PB. We would like to acknowledge Jordan Hayes for technical and systems administration support, the UCI Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds for providing a stimulating environment, Michael Emory Cerquoni (a.k.a. Nebadon Izumi) at Oni Kenkon for development of the default version of the 3-D world, and Ina Centaur at OS Avatars for development of the default set of avatars. We would like to thank Prof. Djorgovski for using the Universal Campus and for useful discussions and feedback. Finally, we thank the core developers of OpenSimulator and the extended OpenSimulator community that has tested the Universal Campus.

References

[1] Lopes, C. V. Hypergrid: Architecture and Protocol for Virtual World Interoperability. IEEE Internet Computing 15, 5 (2011).

[2] McMillan, S.L.W., Djorgovski, S.G., Hut, P. Vesperini, E., Knop, R., and Portegies Zwart, S. MICA: The Meta-Institute for Computational Astrophysics. American Astronomical Society Meeting Abstracts 214, 2144 (2009).

[3] Djorgovski, S.G., Hut, P., McMillan, S., Knop, R., Vesperin, E., Graham, M., Portegies Zwart, S., Farr, W. , Mahabal, A., Donalek, C., and Longo, G. Immersive Virtual Reality Technologies as a New Platform for Science, Scholarship and Education. American Astronomical Society Meeting Abstracts 215, 42 (2010).

[4] Tate, A., Chen-Burger, Y., Dalton, J., Potter, S., Richardson, D., Stader, J., Wickler, G., Bankier, I., Walton, C. and Williams, P.G. I-Room: A Virtual Space for Intelligent Interaction. IEEE Intelligent Systems 25, 4 (2010).

[5] Nadolny, L. Region Review: Universal Campus. January 2012.

[6]Miller, P. Reflections on the Universal Campus. TidalBlog. February 2012.

[7] Reeve, J. Undersea Observatory for OpenSim. February 2012.

[8] Djorgovski, G. vCaltech.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/04 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2181207.2206888



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