An immersive and multi-faceted virtual and augmented reality application from Dassault Systèmes can be used not just in travel and learning, but in engineering too.
"Get ready to meet history!" Nicolas Serikoff, Dassault Systèmes' project manager, said with a smile.
We were in the Virtual Reality Cave at the company's offices outside Paris. I was given a pair of special 3D glasses and two enormous boat-sized slippers: the floor of the room was part of the panoramic 3D display I was about to witness – or rather, interact with.
"In this room, our customers validate 3D models in CGI before the real object is created," explained Serikoff. "We have seven projectors, including one for the floor, all linked to seven computers. The computers are rather ordinary, it is your 3D glasses that are special as they are connected to a tracking system. When you make a move in reality, you will move in the virtual world..."
We suddenly found ourselves inside a spacious brand-new car, which could be explored by opening and closing doors, turning the wheel and even peeping inside the glove compartment.
The virtual reality car was soon replaced with the interior of a vast, modern flat. We were standing in the corridor leading to a modern state-of-the-art kitchen, so cosy and inviting that I – feeling an irrepressible urge to enter it – made an involuntary step forward and bumped my head against an invisible wall.
"Be careful," said Mehdi Tayoubi, Serikoff's colleague, from behind the control panel in one of the room's dark corners. "The virtual world doesn't hurt – it's the real one that does!"
Flying above Paris
The virtual-reality car and flat were just a prelude, a warming up before the main 3D experience of the day – and soon I was flying, like a bird in a blue Paris sky, above the landmarks that were familiar from childhood. Although, on closer inspection, some of them were clearly different, as if unfinished: the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral had gaps in the façade and lacked two towers at the flanks.
I landed on top of one of the already completed towers and peeped into the well of the courtyard. Down below it looked like an open-air tavern: men and women in medieval costumes sat around crude wooden tables eating and drinking for all they were worth. Having squinted at the happy diners, I saw that they were eating off wooden boards, not plates, and were not using knives or forks, but tearing off chunks of meat with bare hands – in truly medieval fashion.
I then flew even further back in time to Gallo-Roman Lutetia, where a gladiatorial fight was under way inside a huge round arena.
Having left Lutetia, I stopped for a short rest, and for a minute or so sat astride the wall of the 12th century Louvre – not yet a palace or a museum, but a fortress of the King. From my resting point a hundred or so metres above the ground, I could discern all the details of the building's minimalist period architecture. This time, looking down made me feel disoriented and dizzy, so that I nearly fell off the wall Humpty-Dumpty-style, head first. I asked for the display to stop.
"We do a lot of time-travelling here," Serikoff said with absolute seriousness. "It is our way to promote our 3D technologies and to show to the public what we can do."
Dassault Systèmes (DS), Europe's second largest software manufacturer, can indeed do a lot in areas much more 'real' and up-to-date than medieval Paris. Its recent virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) solutions have been successfully applied in car-making and shipbuilding, medicine and defence, aerospace and electronics.
More than just games
Whereas military and defence innovations often have to remain sub rosa, my DS hosts were happy to share the details of some other areas where their VR and AR apps were being successfully used.
'Staying Alive', for example, uses simulation technologies for medical training. On the 'Staying Alive' website, both healthcare professionals and the public can – with the help of special sensor-enhanced gloves – learn appropriate movements and techniques that can save the life of a person who has experienced sudden cardiac arrest.
"These realistic 3D virtual applications are much more than serious gaming," explains Alexandre Mignon, MD, PhD, MBA, professor of Anesthesiology & Intensive Care Medicine. "Staying Alive is the first medical initiative of its kind whose objective is to provide the optimal training of the techniques, which can be repeated as often as necessary, before applying them to a real patient."
Dassault Systèmes' VR and AR solutions are also used for treating patients suffering from phobias and addictions. Researchers can now observe and record (from the safety of their offices, no doubt) the interaction between a patient and an object or an environment that causes some psychological discomfort. Someone suffering from a fear of flying would be placed inside a simulated flight, for example, or an arachnophobe would face a simulated AR/VR spider, thus giving the observer an insight into the patient's cognitive behaviour. They can then help the patient to gradually confront their fears.
"Patients with anxiety disorders must face their fears to conquer them, and with these 3D VR and AR tools we would be able to quickly and easily create any virtual environment and make it work on any multiple display system," says Dr Stephanie Bouchard, director, Canada Research Chair in Clinical Cyberpsychology at the University of Québec, one of DS's numerous technology partners.
DS's other technology partners include Jaguar Land Rover, Microsoft Corporation, Nestlé cereals and Salon Nautique in Paris, for which DS have developed a VR/AR model of a 60ft monohull yacht, and many more.
In March 2013, DS partnered with Ash Green Secondary School in Coventry, UK, as part of a community involvement initiative to deliver to the pupils all kinds of engaging and highly educational learning experiences. After my VR flight above Paris, it was not difficult to imagine how powerful and eye-opening those experiences could be.
The power of experience
'Experience' was a word that I heard frequently during my short visit to DS. Everyone at this company seems to have a strong faith in the power of experience, which, as they tend to believe, is more important than a product, for it allows you to present and test the products that do not exist yet. "We firmly believe that experiences are bigger than products or services alone," explains Monica Menghini, executive vice-president Industry, Marketing and Corporate Communications at DS. "Experiences are an entirely new level of economic offering. Companies that deliver stellar experiences, such as Apple, are changing the economic landscape for everyone."
Augmented reality (AR) is one such, increasingly important, experience. To underline the enormous possibilities AR can offer, DS, in conjunction with Flammarion publishers, undertook a unique project: the first ever multi-faceted 'Paris 3D Saga', which incorporates VR, 3D, video, audio and AR as well as an album-size guidebook 'Paris. The Great Saga'. Some of the pictures in this richly illustrated edition literally come to life – in 3D – on your computer screen with the help of a webcam and a designated software download. The project was launched at Paris City Hall on 29 September 2012 in front of an audience of 15,000 people.
'Paris 3D Saga' was a PR and marketing initiative to draw attention to the company's more 'serious' products. But why did DS opt for history and travel to demonstrate its technologies to the best advantage?
Tayoubi says: "Culture is common to all people. If Leonardo da Vinci lived now, he would have been using our 3D and AR platforms. I believe we are approaching the period of a new cultural renaissance, so there's no better way of grabbing public attention and telling them about ourselves than culture, history and art. We have showcased our technologies in archeology, fine arts and even ballet. And now we've done 'Paris 3D'."
The project could just as well be called 'Paris VR and AR 3D', for it can be accessed across multiple devices and platforms, including a website, an iPad application, 3D-powered films, 3D educational documentaries and 3D 'touch' terminals (or kiosks) used mainly by Paris museums, but also by schools, libraries and even hospitals.
The publishing part of the project – 'Paris. The Great Saga', the album-cum-guidebook – has so far been a success. Gaëlle Lassée, senior commissioning editor at Flammarion, told me that it was selling well and that the publishers were ready to undertake further joint projects with DS.
While in Paris, I decided to test 'Paris 3D Saga' in situ, so to speak. One sunny morning, armed with an iPad and a small stack of old books, magazines and postcard albums, I took a seat on the terrace of a Paris café overlooking Notre-Dame. The breathtaking 'reality' of the world-famous cathedral was right there in front of my eyes, and the only thing that remained for me to achieve was to 'augment' it.
Augmented reality of the mind
Well-equipped as I was, I was also aware of the fact that my version of books- and postcards-enhanced reality did not quite correspond to the accepted definition of AR as a technology which presupposed some kind of 'computer-generated sensory input', such as sound or graphics.
Yet, in all seriousness, to me the view of Notre-Dame was 'augmented' sufficiently to generate a number of colourful 3D images, if not on a computer screen then definitely on the screen of my memory and imagination. It was like a secret window in the rock-solid wall of reality – the window that made it possible to take a peep into the past, or even the future; the window that was only visible and accessible to the people with special tools, technological or other. And unlike virtual reality, which takes you away from the real world, AR could only work properly inside it.
The possibilities offered by emerging AR technologies to a knowledge-hungry traveller or historian are truly limitless. Even its already existing applications, like the Museum of London's StreetMuseum (superimposing historic images over the present-day views on iPhones), mTrip and HistoryPin, have expanded the traveller's experience in a number of exciting and useful ways which no human imagination can rival. And this is just the beginning.
Tourism of the future
AR is a technology driven by both the imagination and knowledge of its creators, and my Paris hosts, Dassault Systèmes' software engineers, had plenty of both. Yet I was curious to find out more about the future applications of AR in travel and history studies.
On returning from Paris I spoke to USA-based Professor Bernard Frischer, the world's leading expert on virtual heritage as well as historian, archeologist, winner of the Pioneer Award of the International Society on Virtual Systems and Multimedia, and author of 'Rome Reborn', a virtual recreation of the entire city of ancient Rome. I asked him about his vision of tourism and guidebooks of the future.
Prof Frischer predicts 'that a successor to the traditional guidebook will not be a printed book or e-book, but a VR- and AR-based simulation of the tourist destination which exploits the principles of problem-based learning to encourage what I call 'active tourism'.
'In active tourism,' he continues, 'the visitor no longer passively follows a guide but is actively engaged in a quest or adventure with other visitors who may be on site or online. Active tourism in this sense represents the democratisation of the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th century Europe – a form of tourism in which a wealthy, aristocratic visitor to, say, Rome could hire a learned guide for weeks or months at a time. In the age of the Grand Tour, the guide had the status of servant to the aristocrat and had to respond to his master's ever-shifting interests and whims.
"In active tourism, the AR information system (and by AR I mean natural sensations supplemented with artificial sensations) will provide extremely reliable information that can both stimulate and respond instantly to the curiosity of the normal visitor of modest means who comes to a culturally rich destination for the first or tenth time."
Karl Baedeker, the great 19th century guidebook writer and author of 'Baedeker's Paris, 1900', which I was carrying with me, would have loved that. He always stood for creative tourism and would have abhorred most of the modern guidebooks, which sap the joy and adventure out of travel by over-abundance of excessive – and often unnecessary and distracting – detail. Paris was Baedeker's favourite destination, by the way.
Back in Paris (as you may have noticed, I have just habitually travelled back in time, if only a couple of weeks), I open my iPad. Dassault Systèmes' iPad application 'Paris 3D Saga' comes to life. It shows the 13th century Notre-Dame. With my index finger I start rubbing the past off the screen, and soon it is replaced with a modern view of the Cathedral identical to the one I can see from the café's terrace.
I stand up from my table and walk out into the un-augmented reality of a crisp and sun-enhanced Paris afternoon.