The Use of Virtual Reality for Pedagogical Visits

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The Use of Virtual Reality for Pedagogical Visits
in Museums and Galleries: The Case of 360 Panoramas

George Kavouklis, Costas Tsolakidis University of the Aegean, Greece

Introduction

Educational curricula acknowledge the value of museums -specifically on issues of history and culture- and this is why they include visits in relevant places. However, the traditional Museum Education activities do not always achieve the expected results (Hooper – Greenhill, 2005), hence the need for a different approach regarding this issue. The main point in this paper is that a specific form of Virtual Reality (VR), in particular 360° Panoramas can contribute successfully in the effect that museums and galleries have in education.

Such an application makes the contents of these institutions available for studying, not only to visitors before and after an actual visit, but also to people that either do not have any chance to visit the museum (they are far or isolated) or because such a visit includes organizational difficulties that cannot be easily overcome. It is hoped that applications such as the one proposed in this work provide useful material for students of remote and isolated schools as those involved in the Project Rural Wings (Rural Wings). It is a project that offers satellite broadband connection to remote areas of Europe and beyond. In this way, an attempt is made to ease isolation and to advance progress and development in these regions through education and training with the aid of contemporary technology.

Virtual Reality and 360° Panoramas

The concept underpinning the creation of panoramic images is not new (Ellis, 2001). It should also be noted that the steps involved in the creation of photo-realistic VR systems have been greatly simplified by recent advances in hardware and software functionality. QuickTime technology provides a robust and economic means of developing panoramic movies and with the aid of a panoramic optic, 360° images can be taken in one or more shots avoiding time consuming stitching processes.

Panoramic production

Panoramas are produced by taking a sequence of pictures, overlapping the individual pictures by a certain percentage. With this method, the camera is turned by a specific angle to the position where the next picture is to be taken until an entire 360° revolution has been completed. The type of the panorama (cylindrical, spherical or cubic) depends on the number of individual pictures and the selected projection format. The next step in panoramic production is to stitch individual pictures so as to create a panoramic picture. The specifications that should be considered in the stitching program are the type of lens used, focal length and field of view. Stitching programs normally connect the pictures by overlapping them in order to create a soft, invisible transition. This process is carried out applying a program named PTGui. PTGui is a panoramic stitching software for Windows and Mac OSX. Originally developed for panorama tools as a graphical user interface (hence the name), PTGui is now a full featured photo stitching application.

Retouching and publishing the panoramic image

There are a few items in panoramic images that need to be retouched. When creating a spherical panorama, the legs of the tripod appear in the bottom of the picture at some point. In zenith and nadir, retouching is necessary. The procedure for doing this depends on how the scene was shot and what kind of program is used. In the application described in this work, Photoshop was used with a special filter that transforms the pictures’ projection. Publication depends also on the projection type. Some panoramas can be printed and almost all of them can be published in the Internet. Our method consisted of creating equirectangular (spherical) JPEG panoramas which were converted into QTVR (Quick Time VR by Apple) .mov files. Apple QuickTime VR moves the photographic image from the flat 2D world into a definitive immersive experience — completed with 3D imagery and interactive components. QuickTime VR enables viewers to explore virtual worlds using nothing more than a computer and a mouse, with no need for any extra device. This feature makes it very suitable for use on the Internet. In conventional photography the issue of illumination does not create major problems, while in panoramic photography the situation is more delicate. In exclusive daylight or artificially lit conditions, the procedure is straightforward. However, when mixed light situations are introduced, the use of photo editing software is mandatory. Camera settings should remain the same throughout the procedure. A large depth of field typically is desired when taking panoramic shots. In order to achieve this, a small aperture (large F-number) should be selected. The amount of light is affected by selecting the appropriate exposure time. Longer exposure times are not problematic, as the camera usually is mounted on the tripod for the panoramic session.

Art education and e-museums

Art is an essential component in education; children (not only those with specific artistic talent), benefit by its presence in an educational curriculum, since this gives them opportunities to create, perform and communicate through various artistic media. Research strongly suggests that young people who learn about art and participate in artistic activities acquire skills that help them in decision making, problem solving, creative thinking and teamwork. An increasing number of studies also find that art programs act induce children to learn and help them to improve their performance in core academic subjects. Museum Education theorists also suggest that learning in museum or gallery settings is based on participative, exploratory, activity-based, informal and individual constructive encounters of learners with original art works and artifacts. In this context, Falk and Dierking argue that learning in the museum or gallery setting is influenced by the interaction between: (i) the visitors’ ‘personal context’, i.e. their individual differences, experiences and attitudes; (ii) the ‘social context’, i.e. models of group behaviour; and (iii) the ‘physical context’, which means the physical environment of the institution (Falk and Dierking, 1992, pp. 4-6).

Thus, the uniqueness of the museum experience as a process of learning depends on the interaction of many and diverse factors, among which the visitors' prior knowledge and experiences, motivations, attitudes, cultural backgrounds, social and physical environments, perceptions and different ways of understanding of the same object by different individuals. Due to such a variety of factors, learning in a museum occurs through different ways of transmitting information and con­cepts to the visitors and does not lead to a single expected outcome (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). Outcomes differ from individual to individual and depend on the unique circumstances in which they occur. Thus, five people can walk around a museum together for an hour or two and come away with entirely different museum experiences (Falk and Dierking, 1992, p. 107).

Learning in museum settings appears to be influenced not only by the interaction of the three ‘contexts’, but also by the nature of the object itself. It is argued that the museum objects act as 'documents' that hold and record meanings and information. These objects not only are able to offer different kinds of knowledge at different levels of sophistication, but also enable people to recall knowledge they have acquired in the past. In other words, the philosophy of learning with such objects is based on the capacity of the object to stimulate all the senses, to lead, through active participation, to the assimilation of new infor­mation, to relate the later to previous knowledge and experience and to compare it with the perceptions of others for the object (Hooper-Greenhill, 1995, p. 232).

In the context of school visits to museums and galleries, the experience from studying the institution’s actual exhibits appears to encourage acquisition of new knowledge and consolidation of already acquired information, thus bringing the individual to the forefront of the learning process. However, it is argued that the best way to exploit the museum and aesthetic experiences is to consider museum and gallery visits as one component of a three-part learning process consisting of (a) preliminary preparation, (b) visit and (c) follow-up work. Such a virtual museum is an ideal way to provide a student-centred constructivist learning environment. It allows students to make choices about what they want to study and offers meaningful topics of academic and cultural interest that can be approached pleasantly, allowing families and the community to get involved in educational activities.

A visit in a 360° panorama museum can act as very valuable tool for the first and third units of the above. In the case of remote and isolated areas, where geographic characteristics inhibit students from a real visit, it is an exclusive tool to see, discuss and learn about the contents of a specific museum that otherwise would be inaccessible. The same applies for schools that are not so far away from the museum but organizational and logistics reasons can make an actual visit impractical. Also, according to museum curators, one of the more powerful reasons for creating on-line virtual museums is the ability to “capture” a certain exhibition in a panorama application and allow virtual visitors to continue enjoying the exhibition in the future. Thus, the work of organizing, displaying, explaining artifacts in a meaningful way is never lost when the exhibition is closed and replaced by the next one. Once a virtual museum space has been developed, reflecting accurately an existing museum building space, it is simple for later exhibits to inhabit this space without having to recreate the basic space each time. A virtual museum curator would simple copy the building space and then place or rearrange objects in the newly copied building space. This would allow easy transfer of existing information from new exhibits directly into the virtual system without a large amount of work each time.

The VR – panorama version of Rhodes municipal gallery

The Museum of Modern Art of Rhodes was inaugurated in 1964. It houses a large collection of Greek masterpieces of art, since the 15th century, including collections of paintings, engravings, historical relics, documents and photographs. Initially the Museum was situated in a single traditional building the Medieval Town. Recently the Museum has acquired a new venue, where a big part of its permanent collection has been transferred, thus facilitating the main building in the medieval town to host temporary exhibitions. The new building, in which the virtual representation is attempted, is pictured in Figure 1.

 

Figure 1 The Art Museum

 

Figure 2 Navigation elements and hotspot triggers

Virtual tour production

A Canon D40 digital camera was used with a Sigma 8mm fish eye lens for the panoramic images and a Canon D20 with an 18-55 normal lens for conventional shots. The camera was mounted on a professional tripod fix with a special panoramic head set. Every panoramic photo consists in average of 15 -18 snapshots taken from one point of view in a 360° circle. Together with the above, FPP (Flash Panoramas Player) software, an Adobe Flash based panorama was used showing the environment. This uses XML files to employ interactivity and controls all media embedded or called upon, during the viewing experience. The main advantage of this software is that it’s highly customizable allowing expanding functionality with the inclusion of new code in the form of software plug-ins. One can import video files, applications like drop down lists, picture galleries, navigation maps, flash Flip Books, links to other media and information nodes etc.

The learning curve of FPP is short and anyone determined can easily adjust and enrich the virtual experience as preferred. In order to test the above technology, a virtual tour of a part of the art museum was attempted. The second floor of the museum was selected since it contains works of Modern Greek painters and the displayed material was related to the educational curriculum of the 6th year of primary school and of the high school. The area was photographed and a few 360° panoramas were created for this area. Also, conventional photos of the paintings were taken to display in detail each individual item. The navigation within the entire floor was performed with (a) the use of the mouse or the arrows that allow rotating and zooming in any direction giving the impression of motion for a limited area and (b) with the use of hot spots that allow transferring the viewer to new position (to a new panorama). The floor map of the second level and the corresponding panoramas are displayed in Figure 3.

 

Figure 3 Floor map of the second level of the Art Museum. The dots are the centres of 360o Panoramas

Hot spots greatly enhanced the operability of the entire setup since they provided:

  1. Advancement to a new position in a room or in another room (a new set of images forming a new 360o panorama) and
  2. Zoom in on a painting, to display it on a level perpendicular to the line of view of the user of the facility for inspection and analysis. By clicking on the rectangular designated area (Figure 2), one can trigger the presentation of the painting (Figure 5). Interactivity is enhanced by enabling icons to be embedded within the interface thereby providing access to a variety of learning objects Figure 4 and Figure 5.
  3. Information displayed on the screen in the form of a window or a flip book. It is a facility simulating an open book, the pages of which could turn using the mouse and could display:
    • text with instructions or briefing on the painting,
    • audio with similar contents and
    • video of an expert – host introducing relative matters i.e. artists’ line of work, explaining the meaning of the piece of art etc

We designed a navigation scheme based on hotspot arrows for exploring the showrooms of the gallery. We also included a list of thumbnails, giving direct access to the room of interest, organized according to the physical floor level of the building. The field of view, the opening view in each scene, and the minimum and maximum zoom capabilities were adjusted in FPP.

 

Figure 4 Navigation with floor map

 

Figure 5 Presentation of a selected work together with accompanying information

Conclusions

VR panorama learning environments are expected to help in introducing highly individualized and more efficient ways of teaching in a class room or in applying distant learning scenarios. Working with virtual models and simulations allows for more illustrative and practice-oriented teaching. These technologies, with the use of appropriate educational scenarios can support lifelong learning, collaborative learning and personal knowledge exchange. However, effective learning requires carefully structured virtual museums and galleries that meet the different requirements by students and practitioners. Effective forms of electronic communication have to be established to make up for lacking control, motivation and group awareness when face-to-face communication is limited.

Virtual Tour design is an iterative process. The experimental application presented in this work indicates that 360° panorama VR applications seem highly promising although evaluation should be completed if general conclusions are to be drawn. The initial results however are positive. The 360° Panorama VR application presented here provides a feasible, technically efficient educational tool. Moreover the application’s ability to enhance learning seems satisfactory. The entire layout was tested by teachers who offered comments and pedagogical advice. Tutors proved keen to embrace these new technologies; they were excited by the potential applications offered to them and welcome the opportunity to cooperate aiming to create new learning resources.

However in order to draw certain conclusions, further evaluation of the entire process is mandatory. More specifically, it is necessary to specify the pedagogical and educational criteria that the application should meet after an evaluation feedback from students. The above work is expected to be tested along these lines, in virtual and actual visits of students in the Rhodes Art Museum and the results will be announced in the EDEN Conference. It is hoped to be a good application for the town schools in Rhodes as well as the remote and isolated schools of the Rural Wings effort.

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