European virtual reality developers get real

Greater use of virtual reality (VR) technologies could create jobs and innovative products, according to a new European trade organisation for VR which is being set up to bring together the continent's researchers, developers and industrialists.

Called EuroVR, the self-financed association will build on a four-year EU-funded project called Intuition. This was set up in 2004 to pull together Europe's fragmented efforts in VR, and had more than 60 formal partners and 80 associate organisations. 

Made famous by the holodeck in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', and online worlds such as Second Life, VR has a frivolous reputation. However, it is already serving practical and useful purposes in medicine, education and training, and in the energy, aeronautics and car industries.

One important application is in industrial prototyping. By building virtual prototypes rather than physical ones, the time to develop and commercialise a product can be greatly reduced, along with the costs.

In particular, European car-makers have invested far more in VR than their US counterparts, according to Intuition co-ordinator Dr Angelos Amditis, of the Institute of Communication and Computer Systems in Athens. He said this could help see them through the economic crisis by cutting costs and the time to market for their new products.

"Virtual reality looks exotic to the general public," he explained. "But for many of us this looks like a key technology that could really enable innovation and creation of new jobs, opportunities and products."

In simpler VR systems, the user views a virtual scene on a normal computer screen, while in more sophisticated fully-immersive systems, the user can move through a surrounding virtual environment, though not yet as realistically as portrayed in 'Star Trek'.

In its four-year life, Intuition fostered 16 internal projects and many external ones. "The idea was to increase cooperation by creating groups of two, three or four partners to develop a specific application," Amditis explained.

Links with the European Space Agency have led to projects to do with prototyping, astronaut training and remote maintenance. Another project, developed by INRIA, showed how an illusion of texture in Web pages could be created without special equipment.

Practical services included an online knowledge base in VR, a virtual lab where partners could use one-another's infrastructure, and an employment exchange and mobility scheme. An annual workshop grew into a major conference and has now become one of the world's biggest trade exhibitions for the VR industry.

EuroVR will take over the knowledge base and other collaboration services from Intuition and will run events and publish a journal. It will act as a voice for Europe's VR industry, promoting co-operation and especially supporting SMEs, Amditis said.

"We already have more than 60 organisations interested in taking part," he added. "Half of them are from the original Intuition consortium and the other half are outsiders. Even during the current economic crisis people are looking at VR with great interest."

He admitted that understanding of VR can be poor, especially in senior management where Star Trek fantasies still shape sceptical attitudes to the technology. "But if you go into the research departments of companies you will see a lot of positive attitudes – they are really interested in VR. So we are looking for applications that are easy to install and use, to persuade people that this is something worth investing in."

An urgent priority for EuroVR will be to draft standards for VR applications. Lack of standards has kept costs high, held back investment and confined VR to niche products rather than a wider market. "We are reinventing the wheel again and again," Amditis said. "Standardised solutions mean less expensive solutions."

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