From 3D printers to virtual environments, technology is helping to combine worlds
In the wake of looming deadlines for semester-end assignments, Hector Alzate is one of the few students at TRU who can justify spending his days on Xbox Kinect. No, he hasn’t figured out how to get academic credit playing Dance Central, but he may have figured out a new way to teach RCMP officers about crowd control tactics using virtual reality.
By the end of the semester he hopes to finish a virtual simulation of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot that RCMP officers can physically interact with.
“It’s a simulation intended to train the officers and make them better,” he explained.
Alzate’s directed studies project builds upon a 3D digital replica of Vancouver that computing science alumnus Alex Touchet created in a previous semester. RCMP officers can navigate through this environment, which includes everything from Rogers Arena to Science World, using the same motion-sensing technology that powers Xbox Kinect video games.
Under the mentorship of TRU computing science instructor Andrew Park, Alzate is now tasked with programming and animating the virtual characters that police officers will have to confront.
“We had to make a model for how people interact in a crowd,” Alzate explained. “There are specific kinds of people within a crowd. For example, there are leaders, who are very angry and try to influence others to break things. There are also good guys who try to protect things and bring people back to sanity.”
“There’s a large amount of research on how people behave in crowds, so we had to go to those models to see what would fit in this situation.”
With a general model researched and developed, Alzate’s next step was to program the artificial intelligences (AI) of each individual within the crowd.
“This is a really hard thing to do,” he explained. “First, there’s just getting them to know, ‘hey, that’s a window. Let’s break it.’ Then one of the other interesting parts was making human-like movement. In real life we like to keep our distance from each other, for example, and that has to be programmed.”
Alzate is still working on the human models and their animations, but he plans to finish his project by the end of this semester.
“Then he will present his simulation at Simon Fraser University’s Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies,” Park explained. “He will show his work to criminologists and police officers.
“[Alzate] and I are really interested in realistic simulation. We want to use 3D models with realistic building and human characters so it looks like real life. That’s why we use lots of game technologies. But we are not making games, we are making social simulations based on social studies. How do people behave, and influence others. How do police officers control a crowd? It’s not just computing science. We are combining social science studies and computing science technologies.”
Virtual simulation developed for TRU Kamloops campus
Park thinks virtual reality can benefit TRU’s grounds, too.
“The next project is to figure out if the TRU campus is safe,” he said. “We re-created the Kamloops campus virtually, and it’s very realistic. We are going to have some experiments soon.”
One of Park’s personal research interests is studying how people experience fear and perceive danger in their environments. In the past, he has teamed up with students to simulate specific areas of Kamloops (Victoria Street, for example) to help facilitate criminological studies.
“It’s not ethical to just bring people to an area and ask them how scary it is to them,” he explained. “So instead, what we do is create virtual environments that resemble the target areas.”
In one of Park’s experiments, he simulated an area of downtown Kamloops during both day and night, and asked participants to navigate from a starting point to a designated end point in both scenarios. The participants were free to pick whichever path they thought was the fastest or safest.
“As you might expect, nobody chose any alleyways,” he explained. “We put human characters there, laying down on the street and such.”
Similarly, he will soon be able to study how people behave as they navigate through the TRU campus.
Park said that TRU World may also have a use for a virtual model of the campus.
“They can use the same environment to create a virtual orientation for international students,” Park explained. “Some international students cannot come to the campus for their orientation, so we are creating this for them. You can talk to virtual humans. You can learn about registration, which building is for what, and everything.”
TRU workshop demonstrates 3D printers
Creating immersive, convincing virtual environments is one possibility of 3D modelling software. Last Wednesday, students found out that creating real-world objects, ranging from fully functional crescent wrenches to toy robots, is another. Machinist Dave Hylands facilitated a workshop in the House of Learning to demonstrate how 3D printers heat, weave and cool threads of plastic to construct tangible items.
He began his demonstration by explaining the history of 3D printers.
As it turns out, the technology to print in 3D existed since 1984, but acquiring one was difficult and expensive, to the point where it simply was not worth it.
This changed a little over two decades later, when patents for the original designs expired. New designs for 3D printers started emerging in 2007 and, thanks to the Internet, they were more widely adopted this time around. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo helped innovators raise funds. Designers were able to share and publish their 3D models online, so non-designers could download and print them.
Hylands then walked the audience through the process of designing and printing an object. Because of time constraints, he chose a simple item: a red plastic cut-out of a ModLab logo with embossed white lettering.
To begin, he used a software program called FreeCAD, which allowed him to build the geometric, wireframe shape of the item. Then he used another application called Cura to encode the wireframe with a specific path that the 3D printer could follow to successfully print the item. Finally, he used a program called Repetier Host to embed more specific instructions into the wireframe. For example, he needed the 3D printer to stop at a certain point so he could change the printer’s filament from a red plastic to a white one. With the design completed, Hylands proceeded to print it. The printer itself took about 10 to 15 minutes to complete its job.
Aras Balali, who helped organize the event, explained that he is working to make the benefits of a 3D printer accessible to Kamloopsians without having to be an expert like Hylands.
“It’s in a pretty early stage, but what we want to do is create a ‘makerspace’ in Kamloops,” Balali said.
A makerspace allows people to share their knowledge, expertise and resources to collectively manufacture tangible items ranging from machine parts to arts and crafts. In addition to a 3D printer, woodworking and metalworking facilities would be provided.
In the near future, Balali hopes to launch a fundraising campaign to cover the start-up costs associated with the makerspace. This will include securing a building for the space as well as the tools needed to run it.
For the past year, TRU has also been looking into ways to implement 3D printing on campus. A few programs on campus are already actively looking into ways to integrate 3D printing as a new tool. For the past year, students in the architectural and engineering technology (ARET) program have used them to provide clients with tangible, 3D models of their work. Earlier this year a visual arts student borrowed one of them for a project, and the mathematics and statistics department has its own 3D printer too.
The implementation of 3D printing at TRU is still a work in progress, however, ARET chair Mindy Marshall said.
“As it isn’t part of the curriculum and it takes a long time to print things, most students do not want the hassle,” she said.
Marshall also mentioned that the room used to store them is not ideal because its air quality suffers when the printers run.
She does acknowledge, however, that a few third-year students are keen to experiment with the printers in January.