Virtual Environments, Objects and Video-Communication for E-learning: Virtual World 3D

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Nov 14, 2013 (3 years and 9 months ago)

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Virtual Environments, Objects and

Video
-
Communication for E
-
learning:

Virtual World 3D


Flavio Fontana, Marina Moscarini, David D’Arcangelo

ENEA Usability Lab, Department of Computer Science, University of Rome,
Italy


fontana@casaccia.enea.it, moscarin
i@dsi.uniroma1.it


Abstract:

In this paper an innovative platform to manage e
-
learning activities, courses and
related multimedia databases, in a virtual 3D representation is discussed. Virtual World 3D,
an advanced interfacing based on real scenarios and
animated contextual objects, is
presented. The system, ASP and Java Technology based, has been developed in the ENEA
Usability Lab, Casaccia Research Center, in collaboration with the University of Rome "La
Sapienza". The system allows the web end
-
user to

access to virtual courses and multimedia
web pages. Virtual World 3D is integrated with Matrix platform to visualise multimedia data
exclusively through queries to relational and distributed databases. Virtual World 3D is
finalized both to manage e
-
learni
ng activities and the online study. It provides also advanced
communication between docent/student for web lessons and seminars. An overview of how
the system works and of the complex system architecture is given. Then the experimental
results, using Virtu
al World 3D and MATRIX 3 in e
-
learning experience, and the final
comments are discussed.


Introduction


Universities are complex organisms with a wide variety of facilities. The
University of Rome “La Sapienza” for example has more than 50 buildings
and mo
re than 100 institutions all over the University Campus. Hence it would
be helpful for the university administration, the students, visitors and the
people who work at the University to have a virtual information system that
everybody can explore and act a
s in real life. Nevertheless there is another
important reason to establish such a system: globalisation forces every
university to face the fact that it has to compete with other universities world
-
wide both for students and resources. Consequently, it is

vital for every
university to present itself in a proper way as on the graphic representation as
on the functional side.

This work has been developed in different steps implementing various
prototypes of a Campus Information System.

The project’s most in
teresting parts have been the design of 3D objects,
spaces and avatars and the implementations of methods that could make
possible an interaction user
-
3D world and user
-
user.

The actual approach is the development of a 3D World Information System.
Here, th
e user is able to explore the University Campus in 3D and in real
-
time.
VRML is used for the description of the 3D
-
objects and to implement the
interaction mechanisms of the system. The only preposition for the user is a
standard Web
-
browser with an integr
ated VRML viewer. By the integration of
VRML and Java it is possible to use the 3D
-
model of the University Campus
as a 3D user interface.
As it is represented in the Figure 1 the general
architecture, it is easy to understand that t
he user simply has to lo
ad the
HTML
-
page of the Campus System from the Web
-
server via HTTP

to start the
VW
-
3D platform.

In this HTML
-
page the VRML
-
viewer
and the Java
-
Applet of the Campus
System are embedded. Both
applications are running inside the Web
-
browser and are communica
ting with
each other by the External Authoring
Interface (EAI). By the use of this
interface we are able to control the
content of the 3D scene in the VRML
-
viewer (by adding and deleting objects),
receive events from object inside the
scene, and animate ob
jects from
outside. This is why we can offer an
object
-
browser included in the user
interface where the user is able to select
the objects of interest and the desired
representation type for every single
object. Therefore every geometric object



has to be available on the Web
-
host as

Figure 1



General Architecture


a VRML
-
file. To manage all this different


files belonging to the objects and the attributes of the objects a database
management system is running o
n a special database server. Here the Java
-
Applet plays the central part: it is not only communicating with the VRML
-
scene but it is also communicating with the DBMS. It is implemented in a
three
-
tier
-
architecture, where the Applet is not connected directl
y to the
DBMS. The Applet queries a middleware layer, which is communicating in a
secure environment via JDBC with the database server. It clearly displayed in
the figure

1
.


System overview


Virtual World 3D (VW
-
3D) is an
advanced visual interface
system

to the MATRIX 3
platform to represent in 3D the
e
-
learning activity and related
network services for
cooperative
-
works

(
see
figure 2)
.
The system developed at ENEA
Usability Lab is based on the
Java and VRML languages and
very strong integration between
a
n innovative web site and its


Figure 2


VW
-
3D
Implementation layers


related multimedia an
d
distributed databases. In particular,

the main modules
of VW
-
3D are:



-

Core System
, it manages the virtual world stru
cture and its related
web pages and databases;

-

Visual Interface Manager
, this module manages, by means of a visual
representation, the virtual world representation, the end
-
user
connection (registration), the avatar configuration and audio
-
video
communicat
ion;

-

Catalogue
(Virtual Courses Catalogue), it

integrates the Matrix Course
Catalogue and the access to the hypertextual courses for the
docent/student (web page editor, authoring tool, etc.);

-

Calendar,
it manages all e
-
learning events. In particular,
for each
course the module gives information on data, time, course, lesson,
docent and classroom;

-

Classroom

for Lesson and Seminar, it manages asynchronous and
synchronous lessons and seminar in a 3D classic classroom view. The
module manages also a slide
collection repository by means of a very
user
-
friendly multimedia interface. The classroom has the following
objects: desk, chair, docent table, personal computer, blackboard,
mega
-
screen, etc.;

-

Multimedia Library,
it manages the queries and 3D result disp
lays to
the multimedia databases (Video lessons, seminars, interviews,
experimentations, demonstrations, photos, etc.);

-

Docent/Student Room (Studio),
the module manages the objects of
the room, they are: table, personal computer, books, library,
blackboard
, TV
-
Mega Screen, etc. The studio includes the audio
-
video
communication systems for virtual synchronous meeting.


Virtual World 3D has been directly integrated with some modules of Matrix 3
platform:


-

Web Based Document Management System (WBDMS)
, this mod
ule
manages the documentation of the courses in relation to the end
-
user
profile and his working
-
group;

-

News
, manages the news areas and the database through a specific
form;

-

Conference & Workshop
, this module manages and selects
information about the even
ts;

-

Registration and Communication
, this module manages the user
-
login/registration, and network services towards the end
-
users;

-

Newsletter
, it manages a newsletter with an integrated authoring tool.
Moreover, a specific web site has been designed to colle
ct the
newsletter production;

-

e
-
Voice
, the module manages a voice chat organised in “Thematic
Rooms”.


Virtual World 3D includes other specific modules to provide, in terms of online
study, the e
-
learning activity. They manage remote classrooms and their
communication systems during a virtual lesson. All courses have been
structured in thematic modules and each module has several lessons. The
courses are integrated with additional information (Minimum Data Set) and
services like: card of the course, docent

interview, list of participants, personal
notes, online documentation, bibliography, glossary, dynamic links, end
-
user
tests, forum, voice
-
chat and synchronous and asynchronous video
communications.

The system includes also a distributed multimedia databa
se using different
RDBMS (MS
-
Access, Oracle, SQL Server, etc.) installed on several server

computers to manage and produce the courses and their contents. During the
experimentation three generations of the virtual world have been designed to
study the en
d
-
user requirements and their use of the systems.


The VW
-
3D is divided in three specific modules:


-

The Applet
: it is the high level module of the system, the basic functions
are to build the 3D worlds and communicate to the Server the events
generated in

the virtual scene;

-

The Server
: the core of the system, from here all the messages and the
changes of the 3D scene are synchronized on all the connected applets.
The server passes to the lower module all the queries
;

-

The Matrix VW
-
3D Layer
: it’s the module

connected to the databases and
it is the lower level module of the Virtual World 3D. All the requests of
information are filtered here and all the queries are done.


The Virtual World 3D has a very simple idea on his client
-
server concept. It
works like

a chat where all the applet’s events and messages generated in the
3D scenes are sent to the server and then repeated with a echo function to
the other clients. By changing this protocol into a more intelligent “repeater”
the server is able to recognize
different events and decide which ones are to
be sent back to the clients and which ones are to be passed to a lower level
computation. Infact there are many actions in the 3D worlds that can generate
request of new information. This part of data retreivin
g is passed to the more
specialized module of Matrix, where all the events and actions are filtered as
queries and procedures.

This module, named VW
-
3D MATRIX, is directly anchored to the WDBMS
and makes the VW
-
3D system be separated from the DB manageme
nt and
makes the server computation completely indipendent from what it is
concerned for the queries and the data retreiving.

The data extraced fom the database (FADIVGEN) can be used to create html
pages, to obtaine the addresses of video and audio files,

and finally
information to create 3D objects and spaces for the virtual scene.

VW
-
3D
is optimised for scalability and network stability. The system
implements TCP/IP network communication with socket bases and a rigid
protocol. The result of these systems

is a highly scalable and stable system
and the modularity of its implementation ensures a very easy flexibility any
time new features are added resolving the difficulties that the original protocol
would create. The must interesting task that the Virtual
World 3D resolves is
to create a very customisable platform.

Taking a stand
-
alone 3D world and avatar integrating it into a distributed
system is a complex task. One of the primary problems was the decision on
what had to be distributed and what could be
done locally. Much of the VRML

events control, finally, has been done using Java so that the system is
independent on the VRML implementation.



In the Virtual World 3D the navigation is free and all external/internal spaces
are open and public.

In this

environment have been used “Information Point”, the icon with the
symbol “?” put in evidence where it is located, to inform the end
-
users in a
structured way. Some “Meeting Point”, to permit free exchange of information
between the end
-
users, has been des
igned.

To facilitate the navigation in the
Virtual World 3D have been defined specific links to the main areas. To
improve the visual interfacing the technical staff has studied all dimensional
parameters and visual details in collaboration with experts us
ing professional
software (AutoCAD, 3D Studio, etc.). Macromedia Flash animations and
videos ( Avi and Real formats) to test VW
-
3D have been produced.

The system has been developed using, contemporarily, VRML, Java
Technology and ASP. The VW
-
3D applets ar
e executable directly through a
Java
-
enabled Web Browser (without needing any installation). In particular,
the last version of the VW
-
3D (VW 2.2) needs specific JDK and JMF software.
The videos in Real format need recent Real Player installation.

After th
is very fast overview of the technologies implemented in the system it
is interesting to do an overview of the real functionalities of the Virtual World
3d. The last prototype has a important number of defined 3D functional
metaphors represented with 3D ob
jects that are positioned in the virtual scene
as simple furniture.

The most important
object
s



functionalities

present in the 3D scene are:


1.

The
Computer and
Book
:


from
the
s
e

object
s

the user can visualize the
online documents

(see figure 3a)
. When
t
he user clicks the book the system
retrieves the information from the
database and build up a Java’s frame
with a menu where the user can decide
which document to read or save in his
own repository;

Figure 3a


The Computer and
Book


2.

The
Wide Video Screen
: from this object
the user can visualize the online Videos

(see figure 3b)
. Just like with the
documents when the user clicks the
monitor the system retrieves the
information from the database and
builds up a Java’s frame with
a menu
where the user can decide which
document to read or save in his own
repository;



Figure 3b


The Wide Video Screen





3.

The Calendar
: the user can read the
offline and the online lessons’
informations like time,

arguments,
teachers and which classrooms will take
place the the lessons

(see figure 3c)
.
The information is retrieved from the
database and it is ASP and JavaScript
file.




Figure 3c


The Calendar


The virtual spaces designed with all their functions and utilities in the last
prototype are:


1.

The Hall
: it’s the first ambient that all user pass to reach the others spaces

(see
figure 4a)
. In the hall the user
s can
have information of the lessons, the
teachers and of others users. The
most important thing anyway is that
they can meet other online users just
seeing them exploring with their
avatars. In this virtual space we can
find Books,

Calendars, Monitors
and

Computers.





Figure 4a


The Campus Hall


2.

The Classroom
: it’s the room for the
online and offline lessons

(see figure
4b)
. In this room there are monitors,
whiteboards, slides and books.

The classroom is the aim of all

the
project, the e
-
learning

place, where
the virtual lessons

has place.


Figure 4b


The Campus Classroom


3.

The Student’s Room
: room for each
student

(see figure 4c)
. It’s a private
place where a student can find his
own files
represented like books,
where the monitor will visualize just
his own lessons and files;



Figure 4c


The Student’s Room


4.

The Teacher’s Room
: room for each

student

(see figure 4d)
. It’s a private
place where a teacher can find his
own files represented
like books
videos and where any teacher can
upload his own files and prepare a
new lessons. From this room the user
can send information to any student of
his course by using a pre
-
setted

query
system;







Figure 4
d



The Teacher’s Room





5.

The
Meeting Room
: it is the meeting place of students and teachers

(see figure 4e)
.
Here the user can standby without
bothering the passage of other
avatars and talk to the friends. In this
area are present monitors and books
for a general overview of the
docu
ments;














Figure 4e


The Meeting Room


6.

The Library
: here the users can
retrieve informations from all the
databases of the

system

(see figure
4f)
. It is possible to save files and
documents in a repository area

for
each user and to view it in their
private rooms.



Figure 4f


The Library


The system provides a multi
-
user environment with user
-
ID/password login,
after the regist
ration phase. Each user has a list of his e
-
learning services and
courses.

Two kind of user are handled:


-

Expert User

(
Staff, Partner User
). This kind of user can manage the
system to create and modify the system configuration. This kind of user
manages t
he virtual world space and its objects. The user has a good
knowledge of relational databases and of their structures. The Staff
creates and manages new courses, the calendar and other set of e
-
learning information.


-

End User

(
User
). This kind of user uses

a structure already set up by an
expert user. The user can use the system without knowing the internal
structure of the web site sections and virtual world space. They can
navigate in a free way in all external/internal spaces. The user can have
his own s
et of selected e
-
learning services (end
-
user groups, collections of
documents, e
-
mail services, newsletter, e
-
magazine, virtual
lesson/seminar programmes and hypertextual courses, etc).



Experimental results, conclusions and future works


Virtual World 3D
, after the implementation phase, has been integrated with
Matrix 3 Platform to experiment it in the IV Generation of ENEA Platform
(2005 ENEA E
-
LEARN, http://odl.casaccia.enea.it).

VW
-
3D has been used with a set of existent courses and multimedia
database
s. Specific experimentations have been carry
-
on by students and
docents (e
-
learning system design group by ENEA and University of Rome
“La Sapienza”, Computer Science Dept.) to test VW
-
3D in terms of
functionality.

In the same time

i
t has been completed an

entire usability testing
process in the ULAB laboratory in the research centre

ENEA

of Rome. The
testing phase
s have

been planned following the basic principles of cognitive
and educational

of a user’s

properties like students and teachers.

The result
obtained, in relation to the measure usability degree of the system,
according to
MUSiC

performance measurement method (Macleod et al.,
1997) and ENEA Usability Methodology (ULAB, 2002), has been excellent. In
particular, the tests measured a high percepti
on of the virtual space of VW
-
3D
in the user’s mind making it easier to memorize. The system has confirmed
that an advanced visual representation is really easier to use for large end
-
user groups. As future features it’s planned to provide a completely mod
ular
architecture (to add functions easily), to migrate all modules in a Java
environment. The future platform will manage contemporarly more virtual
world with personalised configurations. The VW
-
3D experience will be
extended towards other application do
mains to provide cooperative works and
advanced simulation environments (Cyber Enterprise, ITEA
-
Sophocles
Project, 2001
-
2003


VISPO Project, 2002
-
2004, E
-
LEARN 2005, Thermic
Solar Project 2006) where is difficult for the designer to learn the use and the
functionality of complex and distributed virtual components.



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