Virtual whales used as teaching tool

March 22, 2006, vol. 35, no. 6
By Terry Lavender

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Visitors to the Vancouver Aquarium will soon have the opportunity to interact with a pod of virtual belugas, thanks to the interactive technology research of Steve DiPaola and his students.

DiPaola, an associate professor in the school of interactive arts and technology at SFU's Surrey campus, has designed a multimedia interactive exhibit that uses artificial intelligence and real-time animation. He was assisted by graduate student Caitlin Akai. 

DiPaola says the virtual, three-dimensional animals will be used to help teach people about wild belugas and how they behave as a family unit in the wild.  Visitors can, for example, introduce an aggressive male into the virtual pod  near a young beluga and view the pod's response.

“The virtual exhibit was conceived to better immerse and engage the visitors in complicated educational concepts about the life of wild belugas compared to what is typically possible via wall signage or a video display, allowing them to ask deeper questions and hopefully have deeper insights into the life of beluga whales,” DiPaola says.

DiPaola and Akai worked with aquarium staff and scientists to better understand how technology-based exhibits can adapt on the fly to visitor needs, or updated scientific knowledge.

The Virtual Beluga Interactive is based on DiPaola's collaborative research with Bill Kraus, a NASA artificial intelligence researcher. He  created the base digital biology system, which uses game technology, 3D graphics hardware and artificial life research to develop real-time animation software for creating interactive simulations of living organisms, DiPaola says.

Benefits of this software include lifelike organic movement, real-time interaction among the virtual belugas and between the viewer and the belugas, intelligent behaviour and a realistic 3D environment, he says.

To generate the beluga behaviour, DiPaola and his students used research data from the live belugas, such as voice recordings and worked closely with marine mammal scientists and aquarium education staff.

DiPaola says the exhibit is unique in Canada.

“But in the end, it is not about the sophisticated interactive projected simulation, but about designing an engaging and exciting collaborative discussion space around it where visitors can feel the rush of scientific discovery and reflect on the life of these amazing animals.”
The exhibit is still being developed, but DiPaola expects it to be rolled out soon with the aquarium's expansion plans.

“With intelligent and adaptive multimedia systems, we believe the work we do here will be used in the future not only for other social spaces with educational mandates like zoos, aquaria and museums, but also in places where people need to engage with information like airports, train stations and public spaces that today typically use static or text-based signage to inform the public.”

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